A Starting Point
Can anyone help me? There is nothing more devastating to a parent than hearing that his or her child has a problem. With the prevalence of autism and the spectrum disorders hitting 1 in 150 children in the United States, the delivery of this devastating news is becoming a commonplace occurrence. Once parents recover from their initial shock and denial, a general sense of urgency sets in to find the right physician to help their child. Unfortunately, after being informed that there is no known cause of autism, they learn that there is no medical treatment for autism.
There is (and always has been) a lot of confusion as to what autism and the autistic spectrum disorders are. This starts with a significant problem with the way autism is classified; autism is considered a ‘mental disorder.’ Since it has been classified as such since the 1940s, most physicians learn little to nothing about it. Its classification further breaks down symptoms of autism as impaired social interaction, repetitive behaviors, and problems communicating. With these ‘defining characteristics,’ it is no wonder that these children are placed into a structured special learning environment accompanied by behavior modification with little to no medical intervention.
I understand autism to be a biochemical and neurological problem that alters the way the brain and body develop, and eventually results in the social, behavioral, and communication problems that these individuals experience. These characteristics are symptoms, and the result of a multi-system breakdown that went undiagnosed. We have let an entire generation of children slip through our fingertips and it is time to mobilize to get them back.
If the top three defining characteristics were under-connected brain circuitry, chronic gastrointestinal dysfunction, and underlying autoimmune and inflammatory processes, we would see a very different treatment criteria established for autism. In fact, based on the research, these three things are the true problems of autism which eventually lead to cognitive impairments.
Spectrum of Extremes
People on the autistic spectrum are so individually different. Some are ‘high-functioning,’ some are ‘low-functioning.’ Some cannot talk at all, while some talk early. Some exhibit extreme sensory-based behaviors (stims) and some don’t. Some are highly intelligent; while others may have IQs lower than 50. Some are considered ‘mildly affected,’ and some are ‘severely affected.’ Some have vestibular or motor planning problems, and some are athletic. The list goes on.
With All of the Differences Between Individuals, What Do People with Autism Have In Common?
Whether you have a diagnosis of autism, PDD-NOS or Aspergers Syndrome, all people with autistic spectrum disorders seem to have one thing in common: a core deficit. Autistic spectrum disorders arise from a bio-neurological condition— a weakness in a child’s biochemical and neurological development. They seem to go hand-in-hand and both need to be evaluated for and treated as early as possible. All individuals with autism have these weaknesses in varying degrees.
Based on my clinical experience, the neurological common denominator appears to be the brainstem. The brainstem is at the center of a myriad of vital body functions that involve most of the organ systems of the body. The list of vital functions is long and encompasses many of the problems we see in autism, including anxiety, sleep disorders, gastrointestinal problems, vestibular disorders, motor coordination challenges, and more. These functions are predominantly autonomic (without conscious control) and arise from a structurally intricate system of neuronal networks. If there is a problem in the brainstem, information coming from the body to the brain is altered and from the brain to the body is changed as well.
The basis for the biochemical problems is found in the genes. Actually, this is an interesting and sometimes confusing concept. When people talk about genetics, they are usually referring to the ‘written in stone’ aspects of who we are. For example, we are genetically predetermined to have a certain hair color, eye color, and body type. However, this is not the area of genetics associated with autism. A specific chromosomal abnormality can be identified when a disorder is considered genetic. For example, an extra chromosome 21 causes Down Syndrome. To date, there has not been a clear ‘genetic defect’ that accounts for autism. So how can there be a genetic problem if there are no chromosomal defects? The answer lies in a relatively new field called Epigenetics: the environment’s impact on our genome. There have been changes to our genes as a result of our environment changing and sometimes these changes can cause sickness and disease. These changes are very commonly seen after exposure to certain toxins, including heavy metals, pesticides, and plastics. The DNA in your genes are actually working in every cell in your body every second of the day, guiding all the cellular activities that make up your chemistry. Altered function in your DNA will cause an alteration in your biochemistry, which leads to altered human function. This is the case in autism.