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What Can Be Done To Prevent Autism Now?

It’s a fact that more and more kids are showing signs of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) than ever before. What’s causing this epidemic is still a mystery, but we now have some strong clues about prevention and treatment, based on emerging science and parents reporting the specific treatments that have created improvement (and, in some cases, recovery) in their children.

There are many theories about why the autism rate has exploded. Some think it’s due to better diagnosis, rather than a real increase. Other people blame maternal age at the time of conception. Still others suggest that a mix of genetic predispositions and environmental factors (including a dramatic increase in the number of vaccines given before the age of 5) is a more likely cause. But while the experts debate these theories, more and more children are being negatively impacted by this condition. In the meantime, moms of affected children who want to have another child, and women who have never conceived, are asking what they can do to increase the chances of a healthy baby. Instead of waiting for the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) or the American Academy of Pediatrics to issue new guidelines or policy changes, savvy individuals are examining the published scientific research and listening to parents who have improved their children’s conditions. They’re coming up with new strategies for carrying, birthing and raising healthier children.

A Sense of Urgency

During the last decade, as the debate about the causes of autism has raged, the Autism Research Institute has been gathering experts from around the world to brainstorm and research the underlying metabolic dysfunctions associated with autism, as well as safe and effective interventions to treat this condition. The founder of the Autism Research Institute (and cofounder of Defeat Autism Now), Dr. Bernie Rimland, instilled a sense of urgency in the group. Its mission is to focus on solutions that will improve the lives of children right now, rather than conduct research that would only have relevance for future generations. As a result of Dr. Rimland’s vision, many children diagnosed on the spectrum have improved and, in some instances, recovered from autism.

Research funded by ARI and other organizations revealed abnormal patterns and metabolic dysfunctions in the ASD population. They include: gastrointestinal dysfunctions (constipation, diarrhea, reflux, increased permeability, decreased enzyme production including DPP1V, abnormal microflora); neuro-inflammation (neuro-glial activation, decreased blood flow to certain parts of the brain, abnormal brain size); hormonal disturbances (including increased cortisol production, disorders of serotonin and dopamine); immune dysfunctions (including a shift from Th1 to Th2, and pro-inflammatory cytokine production); oxidative stress (decreased methylation capacity indicated by lowered methionine levels and other markers, increased homocysteine, lower levels of glutathione, increased lipid peroxidation, decreased B-12 levels); and mitochondrial dysfunction (decreased carnitine level, increased lactate levels).

As parents and clinicians work feverishly to address these abnormalities by assessing each child’s individual issues and attempting to normalize or correct their disturbances, children are improving in speech, behavior, cognition, attention and general health. In some instances, they are even recovering. But this is tremendously difficult and expensive work. Since some of these biochemical abnormalities may be preventable, more and more parents are working at optimizing their health prior to conceiving.

I’ve been a pediatric registered nurse for 33 years, during which time I’ve worked as a certified natural childbirth instructor, labor and delivery nurse, and had a private practice where I provided nutritional counseling. For ten years I coordinated the Defeat Autism Now! (DAN) conferences, interacting with hundred of parents of autistic children. These parents worked tirelessly to implement the biomedical approach (a combination of detoxification, nutritional supplements and dietary changes) to treating their children’s autism symptoms. Many of them, exhausted (and often broke) from instituting various treatments, said to me, “If only I knew then what I know now. I would have made very different choices.”

Autism can not always be prevented, of course, and no one should harbor guilt. We know there are genetic components. But we also now know that environmental toxicity and suboptimal nutrition play a role, as well. As a result of research and from parental reporting, practitioners like me have come to realize that we must build more awareness that autism can be prevented.

I believe we now know enough to encourage couples— whether they’re contemplating pregnancy, are currently pregnant or already have an infant—to implement certain precautionary principles to minimize the risk of autism. These strategies involve minimizing exposure to environmental toxins; maximizing the nutrition and general health of the mother at all stages; providing superior sources of nutrition for the infant and child; and careful, strategic and individualized consideration and use of vaccines.

Of course, there are no guarantees. However, countless parents, physicians and researchers are pooling their experience to learn what is contributing to autism, and those strategies are bringing about improvements in affected children. We now have a deep well of wisdom, science and common sense from which to draw the following safe, effective and practical recommendations for preventing autism, right now.