Sunday, January 24, 2010

Autism and the Environment

My local Green Times newspaper recently published an article called Solving the Autism Puzzle: Studies Point to Environmental Toxicity and I thought that I would share the article with you.

As many as one in 90 children are today being diagnosed with autism- and autism research continues to focus almost exclusively on genetics. In its January/February 2010 issued (posted now at:, E-The Environmental Magazine looks at another factor that may be driving up autism rates: environmental toxicity.

Richard Lathe, Ph.D., a molecular biologist who wrote Autism, Brain, and Environments says that since the 1980s, autism rates "have gone up at least tenfold. It indicates that it can't just be genetic- it must be environmental."

One of the difficulties in tracking autism-and its causes- is the degree of variability in the disorder. In its more severe forms, autism affects social interaction and communication and leads to the development of intense habitual interests. Often, after a year of seemingly normal interaction, autistic kids will fail to respond to stimuli, make eye contact or turn at the sound of their names. They may not talk readily, or they may repeat themselves incessantly. They are likely to follow compulsive behavior such as shaking their hands, stacking objects or repeating daily activities the exact same way each day. The treatment is years of intensive and expensive- therapy.

Much speculation has surround the role of vaccines in triggering autism- specifically vaccines preserved with mercury- contain themerosal (no longer widely used, except in flu vaccines)- but there have been limited studies on the effect of other environmental toxins. The include mercury from fish, air pollutants like lead and sulfur dioxides, water pollutants like arsenic and pharmaceuticals, and environmental toxins like phthalates (plasticizers), Bispheno-A (used in some plastic water and baby bottles) and flame retardants known as polybrominated dipheny ethers or PBDEs, which are used in everything from electronics {sic} equipment to plastics and furniture.

"These chemicals are everywhere," says Michael Merzenich, Ph.D., a neuroscientist at the University of California San Francisco. "They've looked at levels of condemnations from PBDEs in the Polar Regions and there are significant airborne levels everywhere. You really can't escape them."

The research that is taking up the environmental challenge is uncovering surprising answers- particularly in relation to the link between heavy metal toxicity and autism. Some of this research focuses on porphyrine: chemicals that increase in the blood in response to heavy metal toxicity. It turns out that autistic kids have more porphyrins in their blood following chelation- a detoxifying process- than do typical kids.

The antioxidant glutathione- critical for the body to excrete metals- plays a role too. In 2004, research Jill James, Ph.D. of the Arkansas School of Medicine, led a pioneering study that showed autistic kids had significantly less glutathione than typical kids- which put their bodies in a state of "constant oxidative stress."

In other words, autistic kids were genetically predisposed to having low glutathione levels, making them particularly susceptible to heavy metal toxicity. That toxicity- whether from vaccines, fish, dental amalgams, air pollution, tainted water or other environmental toxins- might provide the "toxic tipping point" to render a child autistic.

Many of the doctors and researchers who suspect chemical causes for autism- and who believe in a natural treatments- are included under the umbrella Defeat Autism Now! DAN!, as it is known, is a set of practices for looking at autism from a biomedical or whole-body perspective.

There are medical personnel and parents of autistic kids who speak openly about potential chemical triggers for autism, from vaccines to mercury-tainted fish, who advocate treatments such as chelation therapy, gluten-and casein-free (wheat- and dairy-free) diets and even hyperbaric oxygen therapy, in which oxygen is administer in a pressurized chamber. They tend to be anti-drug and pro-supplement, and they insist that autism is indeed, a treatable condition.

My thoughts: Suffices to say that there is not enough research looking at how environmental factors affect children especially children with autism. Since autism is rising at record breaking levels (a couple years ago I heard it was 1 in 130 children so it must be increasing), it can't be related to genes. Genes don't evolve that quickly. You could say the human gnome (it's not the DNA but the things that turn off and on certain parts of our DNA) is being affected somehow. And since I've seen several studies on twins, including one set where one has autism and the other does not, it seems more likely that autism is not in our DNA. More likely it is environmental exposures that causes the gnome to trigger DNA. But this article seems to believe that it's still not a DNA or gnome thing but rather something else. The whole point, to take away from the article is that environmental toxicity, in some capacity, triggers autism. So becoming green is better for your child.


  1. Personally I blame the gnomes! I suspect there is no single cause and ultimately we will find the causeto be a combination of genetic pre-disposition and environmental toxins.

  2. I would love to know the CAUSES of autism too as that may hold the key to minimising to occurance in future generations. For those that already have autism, sound or music therapy can sometimes help to alleviate some of the day-to-day effects.

    You may be interested to check out the Free Sound Therapy Home Programme available from Sensory Activation Solutions. Their Auditory Activation Method builds on the pioneering work of Dr. Alfred Tomatis (Tomatis method) and Dr. Guy Bérard (Auditory Integration Training) and has been specifically developed with the aim to improve sensory processing, interhemispheric integration and cognitive functioning. It has helped many children and adults with a wide range of learning and developmental difficulties, ranging from dyslexia, dyspraxia and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder to sensory processing disorders and autism. It is not a cure or medical intervention, but a structured training programme that can help alleviate some of the debilitating effects that these conditions can have on speech and physical ability, daily behaviour, emotional well-being and educational or work performance.

    There is no catch, it's absolutely free and most importantly often effective. Check it out at:

  3. Thanks for the comments. I don't have a child with autism so I really don't need any services at the moment.

    As for music therapy, I have a degree in music education of which is closely related to music therapy. I know some of the positive aspects that music therapy has with children and adults with autism. That being said, I hope for some better way to treat the condition. Music therapy is designed to help people express themselves. Autism shuts people off from the world. Many autistic patients enjoy a particular style of music and have a difficult time expressing themselves another way. It's very difficult for clinicians to get them out of their shell, so to speak.

  4. Interesting post! I saw a news thing about how they're seeing clusters of it more among the higher educated. Honestly my thoughts there are... Who's more likely to get their kid tested? Thankfully they did bring that point up. I know 2 people w/ aspbergers (sp?) and another who's kid has it... plus another autistic girl who has it a bit worse than they do. Its rough.


I love to read your thoughts. Thanks for sharing!