A New Look at Autism
When someone says: “He’s autistic,” what does that mean? Because the disorder is so prevalent these days, most of us have some idea of what it could be. Maybe we conjure up images of children rocking back and forth, having little to no eye contact, and maybe even having genius intelligence trapped in a body that refuses to communicate. But when it comes down to it, the term is used so often that many of us don’t really know.
What is Autism?
The term autism is used to describe a range of behaviors, not a person. People have Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) and exhibit autistic behaviors. The word “autism” has been used for almost 100 years to describe a range of mental disorders. The term originates in the Greek root “autos- meaning “self” and the suffix “-ismos” meaning “of a state.” When combined, you get “self-absorbption” or “isolated by self.” It wasn’t until the 1940s that psychologists began using the term to specifically describe children with social and communication impediments.
Today, autism is estimated to affect 1 in 110 children, with boys being about four to five times more likely to acquire the disorder. This is why more often than not, you hear people referring to “him” as having autism. ASD does not discriminate based on race, ethnicity, or socio-economic status; it affects everyone. There are three general types of ASDs: Autistic Disorder, or “classic” autism, Asperger Syndrome, and Pervasive Developmental Disorder—Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS). Each of the three involves social and communication problems in varying degrees, but the specific symptoms vary. Think of ASD as an umbrella: it encompasses three main types of autism, but within those three, there are many different manifestations.
Autistic Disorder is characterized by significant language delays, social and communication challenges, and unusual behaviors and interests,” according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. People with Autistic Disorder may also be intellectually disabled and exhibit repetitive behaviors. This disorder includes those that avoid eye contact, have limited speech capabilities, and cover their ears and rock back and forth when confronted with too much stimulus.
Asperger Syndrome is a milder form of Autistic Disorder, primarily characterized by social and communication problems. These people rarely have language difficulties or intellectual disabilities, but they do have odd interests and repetitive behaviors, and may exhibit some mild lack of eye contact or odd reaction to stimuli.
PDD-NOS, or “atypical autism,” is an even milder case of Autism Disorder that leaves the person with some of the characteristics of classic autism, but not all. They may not have any of the “classic” signs, but are always characterized with awkward social interactions and communication problems. In other words, if a child doesn’t fit specifically in the other two categories, they are put here.
All three of these disorders, and ASDs in general, are described by experts as being an abnormal response to everyday stimuli.
“Autism is basically the mismanagement of incoming stimuli.” says Dr. Jerry Kartzinel, board certified pediatrician and founder of the Kartzinel Wellness Center that specializes in treating children with ASDs. “It might be dad saying ‘get your shoes,’ mom saying ‘I love you,’ their bladder being full, stimuli of sound, smell, taste, touch. These experiences are mismanaged and can even be perceived as noxious stimuli and dealt with, many times, inappropriately. They can hate light and sound and things that are normally well tolerated by kids. This can manifest as hitting, aggression, pulling and pushing.”
Children with Autistic Disorder can go into an extreme fight-or-flight response to something as simple as hearing the phone ring. Those with Asperger Syndrome and PDD-NOS most likely won’t go into the fight-or-flight response, but may be very confused and act inappropriately.
“They don’t transition well from naps to awake, house to car, car to Wal-Mart and back,” says Kartzinel. “The fewer stimuli that are managed incorrectly, the higher functioning they are.”
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSMIV- TR, the version for 2000), the manual used by psychologists and psychiatrists to diagnose mental disorders, Autism is defined by displayed behaviors, not by cause. The DSM-IV TR lists 12 different possible behaviors, and diagnosis is based on the child meeting at least six of the 12 behaviors, of which at least two must be from a list of social interactive behaviors, and one each from the list of communication impairments and the list of repetitive behaviors.
Autistic behaviors usually appear as soon as 12 months of age to 3 years old, however most diagnoses aren’t made until the child is 5 years old; and there are still more children who are not diagnosed until ages 8 to 10. However, with the ever increasing numbers of people with ASDs, many physicians are becoming more aware of the condition and it’s manifestations.
“Pediatricians are wonderful people and they are in the profession because it is a happy profession, but sometimes we tend to put off the diagnosis or even the discussion of a neurodevelopment problem,” says Dr. Nancy O’Hara, cofounder of the Center for Autism and Integrative Health in Wilton, Connecticut, and former physician mentoring director for Defeat Autism Now! “If instead we said, ‘He’s three months behind, lets get some therapy started and if its not needed, then great!’ We need to do a better job in supporting our birth to 3-year-olds.”
The jury is still out on what causes autism. Depending on whom you talk to, you may get a wide variety of answers ranging from genetics to environment to vaccinations, and even to acts of God. However, one thing most experts can agree on is that ASD is “triggered” by something—that the child was normal, and then one day their behaviors started to change. The triggers seem to be different for every case of ASD, but the resulting behaviors are similar.
“Autism is a genetic predisposition induced by environmental triggers that can occur in the womb or very early in development,” says O’Hara. “Triggers can be toxins, antibiotics, chemicals, germs, and any allergens that then make that genetic predisposition show itself.”
Unfortunately, the genetic predisposition has yet to be identified by scientific research.
“If I have five children in my office that are coughing, each one may have a different reason for coughing. One is coughing because of asthma, one from a cold, one from a sinus infection, and anyone can see they are coughing. The causes are all different, however, and so are the treatments.Autism is the same. Though the child may be labeled as autistic, the underlying mechanism(s) causing the autism differs from child to child.”
One of the most widely talked-about triggers of autism is vaccines. One of the first studies that linked ASD and vaccines was done by Dr. Andrew Wakefield and 11 other professionals in the United Kingdom and was published in the British medical journal Lancet in February 1998. The study found that the “Onset of behavioural symptoms was associated, by the parents, with measles, mumps, and rubella vaccination in eight of the 12 children…All 12 children had intestinal abnormalities…behavioural disorders included autism (nine), disintegrative psychosis (one), and possible postviral or vaccinal encephalitis (two).”
The study was retracted by Lancet in early 2010 after the UK General Medical Council’s Fitness to Practise Panel found that the original paper’s claims that “children were ‘consecutively referred’ and that investigations were ‘approved’ by the local ethics committee have been proven to be false.” Wakefield, however, continues to defend the study.
Although experts may not agree completely with the study itself, many agree that the vaccination schedule in the United States and the safety of vaccinations in general needs to be looked at. Although the research is lacking, many experts believe that some vaccines contain harsh chemicals and ingredients that may contribute to the autism triggers.
In the last 10 years there have been many movements to “clean vaccines” and many pharmaceutical organizations have reformulated their vaccinations to remove many of the heavy metals and chemicals they once contained. Although this topic can get rather heated, the message many autism advocacy organizations promote is not to avoid vaccines, but rather to educate yourself about them and make more informed decisions for your children.
Immunization policies and the effects of vaccines have become a matter of public debate, but the success of child-vaccination programs in the United States have resulted in the elimination of smallpox and polio and vastly reduced other serious health conditions. According to a study released in JAMA results do not support a causal relationship between childhood vaccination with thimerosal-containing vaccines and development of autisticspectrum disorders. Yet parents are bombarded with information on suspicions of what causes autism. Until science can prove exactly what causes autism, it’s definitely difficult to disprove anything.
“Autism is preventable and reversible,” says J.B. Handley, co-founder of Generation Rescue. “From the start, our mission has always been about recovery.” Handley adds that Generation Rescue encourages parents to do research and look into the vaccination schedules recommended for children, read the pamphlets the doctors give about vaccinations, and ask questions.
“Our kids with autism can’t handle all the pesticides and chemicals and junk we put in vaccines and the antibiotics we give them routinely,” says O’Hara. “There’s two reasons for this: 1) their glutathione levels are deficient, up to a 72 percent decrease, and 2) their mitochondria are not working the way they should. [The mitochondria] informs the way their immune system works, their gut works, and their detox systems work. That whole system is affected and not working right.”
At its most basic level, gluthathione is one of your body’s antioxidants. It helps to destroy free radicals (especially heavy metals), helps to regulate our body’s nitrous oxide cycle, is essential for optimum immune system function, and is integral in many of our body’s metabolic processes. In addition, children with autism are characterized by having chronic gut and immune system problems.
“I would love for them to do another heel prick on babies when they are born, check their gluthathione levels, and give them a different vaccination schedule if they are low and do the alternative therapies,” O’Hara says. “I think we would find that many chronic neurodevelopmenal and other chronic conditions like asthma and diabetes would be significantly reduced.”
Being proactive about treatment can make all the difference for some children with ASD. Experts agree that the earlier a treatment plan is in place, the higher the success rate of reducing autistic behaviors and even bringing about a full recovery. However, because the triggers can vary so widely and are not always identified, finding a treatment can be a difficult and long journey characterized by many failures.
The problem with treating autism stems from its cause. When it comes to any sickness, many doctors have a hard time suggesting a line of treatment when they don’t know what caused it in the first place. With ASD, the closest we can get to finding a cause is taking in the whole picture of the child.
Experts agree, the best way to begin treatment is by obtaining the history of a child and performing a physical examination. O’Hara uses a 24-page questionnaire, in addition to a 3- to 4-hour meeting with the family. After knowing the background, Kartzinel stresses taking care of the main survival functions first: being sure the child is eating, sleeping, and passing urine and stool.
“By taking care of constipation, diarrhea, overgrowth of bacteria or yeast, or finding out if they need digestive enzymes or an antibiotic, the child most often improves,” he says. We start with the basics, and later incorporate more specific treatments.” About 30
to 40 percent of the children he treats have some sort of digestion or intestinal problems.
O’Hara says, “Many of these children are medically sick. You need to look beyond and beneath that to see what’s going on in their bodies. Look at their homes, schools, diet, and environment. Look at their immune system. Then I put together a package for an individual child that will help their recovery.”
These therapies may include a specific diet (usually gluten-free and casein-free, or GFCF), supplementation, a behavioral therapist, allergy testing, as well as therapeutic intervention such as speech, physical, craniosacral, or aquatic therapies.
DETOX Many Defeat Autism Now! (DAN!) doctors suggest starting with a detox. This is a great way to cleanse a child’s body of heavy metals and other environmental toxins s/he may have absorbed. Think of it as “starting from scratch.” However, if you choose a detox, be sure it is a natural one that doesn’t deplete the body of essential nutrients.
GFCF DIET Switching to a GFCF diet may help cognitive functioning in people with
ASD. Although scientific studies have found no correlation, anecdotal evidence says 60 percent of parents saw improvement in their child when they switched. Doctors can test individuals for gluten and casein sensitivities and intolerances, but they may not be able to give definitive answers.
Casein and gluten are transformed in our bodies into casomorphin and gliadorphin (respectively). They work on our body’s opiate receptors and “make you dull and it is essentially a narcotic which can contribute to abnormal bowel function,” Kartzinel says. He has found that of his patients who switch to a GFCF diet, many experience fewer recurrent infections, improved sleeping patterns, improved digestion, and “seem to be more comfortable in the skin they’re in.”
Handley says his son Jamie, who has autism, responded to the GFCF diet right away. “Things that were heading down quickly, like his eye contact, improved and he reemerged to having a connection with our world. [Before] he was literally unavailable and almost completely disconnected from the world around us.”
GOING ORGANIC By purchasing organic produce and other food products, you can minimize the amount of toxins that may aggravate autistic behaviors. “I find that each bite of an organic vegetable is going to have more of the God-given vitamins and minerals than in those that are grown commercially. There is more nutritional value and you are minimizing your body’sexposure to pesticide/toxins.”
SUPPLEMENTATION Depending on the specific needs of each individual, different supplements may help to curb autistic behaviors, boost mood, and bolster nutrition. At a minimum, taking a multivitamin that is easily digestible (usually a chewable, liquid, powder, or capsule) can help to provide the building blocks to support brain health and proper development.
To treat the metabolic issues that accompany, and perhaps underlie, ASD, you’ll need a host of vitamins and minerals, including magnesium, zinc, B vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids, and vitamin A. Showing particular promise is a so-called quintet of metabolic enhancers, including tri-methyl-glycine, folinic acid, glutathione, allithiamine, and methyl B-12.
BEHAVIORAL THERAPY There are many therapies that can be incorporated to treat specific autistic behaviors such as speech therapy, physical therapy, sound therapy and social skills therapy. For more information on these, go to naturalsolutiosnmag.com and type “Isolated by Chaos” in the search bar.
There are many organizations in the United States aimed toward autism advocacy and education. Generation Rescue is one of these organizations, and at its center is a community of more than 1,000 families, called the Rescue Angels, that are waiting to help other families with their experience.
“All we really did was take the deep knowledge of many of those original parents [of children with autism] and put them in one location to make them accessible to a much broader range of people,” Handley says. “There were 150 original Rescue Angel families that were on the website the day we went live, and it just built from there.”
O’Hara encourages families with children diagnosed with ASD, to seek out other families struggling with the same diagnosis. She says when you have someone else that has gone through the same thing and has tangible results, it helps to get the family through the tough times of experimenting with different treatments.
Within the alternative world, there are many extremely experienced physicians and naturopaths that can help with ASDs. Many of the DAN! doctors are even parents of kids with ASD, and specialize in ASDs.
Handley and his wife started Generation Rescue after their son was diagnosed. Soon thereafter, Jenny McCarthy found the organization in her own search for treatment for her son, Evan. “Once she got Evan to a place she felt good about, she just wanted to give back to others. The truth is that Generation Rescue today is really a reflection of Jenny. She runs the organization, she’s given it the profile it has and raised the money. My wife and I created the original spirit, and Jenny makes it run on the scale that it’s at today.”
Generation Rescue gives grants to families that include a combination of hours with doctors that specialize in ASD, and supplements that may help reduce autistic behaviors. More often than not, traditional insurance plans will not cover many treatments needed for ASD. In 2010, nearly 200 families were able to benefit from the program and implement biomedical intervention.
Above all else, Handley stresses never to give up. “Most kids recover slowly, not quickly, and on your worst day, bear down, find a family to talk to, and I encourage you to keep trying. It will be worth it in the long run.”