Emerging Science and Common Sense Gives Parents Options for Treating and Preventing Autism

by Maureen McDonnell, BS, RN

No one has all the answers as to why so many children are developing autism. Genetic predisposition plus environmental factors? The increase in the number of vaccines given to a child before the age of 5? Some even explain the increase by saying it’s due to better diagnosis. The real problem is, while we wait for the experts whom we’ve placed in charge of our children’s health to unravel the entire mystery, more and more children are being negatively impacted by this condition. Additionally, moms of affected children who want to get pregnant, or women who have never conceived ask what can be done to increase the chances of having a healthy baby. Instead of waiting for new guidelines or official policy changes to be issued by government agencies or the American Academy of Pediatrics, savvy individuals are examining the scientific research, listening to parents who have recovered their children from autism and as a result they are coming up with common sense strategies for carrying, birthing, and raising healthier children.

Insights obtained from relevant published studies regarding various metabolic and other dysfunctions commonly found in autism (GI and immune disorders, impairments in a child’s ability to detoxify and nutrient deficiencies) are key elements in the emerging paradigm focused on practical strategies for prevention and treatment of autism.

Pediatrics study confirms gastrointestinal disorders in children with autism and discusses treatment options:

Two papers published in Pediatrics on January 4, 2010, which were titled “Evaluation, Diagnosis, and Treatment of Gastrointestinal Disorders in Individuals With ASDs: A Consensus Report” and “Recommendations for Evaluation and Treatment of Common Gastrointestinal Problems in Children With ASDs,” were based on a review of relevant literature (1). The committee of 28 experts concluded that children with autism often have medical disorders including gastrointestinal (GI) diseases and that the associated GI symptoms – abdominal pain, chronic constipation, diarrhea, and gastro-esophageal reflux disease – can be at the root of unusual (autistic) behavior. The ensuing guidelines set forth in this paper encouraging pediatricians to evaluate and treat autistic children for these GI disorders is a long overdue acknowledgement of what parents had been telling pediatricians to do for years. The point is, the information has now been published, and there is no longer a dispute about the fact that GI problems exist in many autistic children. We also know from many parent reports that when GI issues are treated properly and resolve, autistic-like behaviors improve.

How might these two factors (the newly published studies and parents’ reports) impact the decisions women are making prior to becoming pregnant, during their pregnancies, and after the baby is born?

Preconception Strategies for Improving GI Health
Some women are wisely choosing to address their own GI health issues prior to conceiving. If a woman has a history of Candida (yeast) overgrowth, digestive problems, gluten intolerance, food allergies, bloating, constipation, or parasites for instance, they are treating these conditions before becoming pregnant. Reducing sugar consumption, minimizing the use of antibiotics, taking probiotics, and using specific diets and herbs are helpful in optimizing a woman’s intestinal (and therefore general health) enhancing the likelihood that her child will not be prone to the GI problems often found in children with autism.
Pregnancy Strategies for improving GI Health
The microflora in the gut of the newborn is influenced by the mother’s health and is the major external driving force in the maturation of the immune system after birth (2). In addition to a nutritious diet, an easily absorbed, natural prenatal vitamin, pure sources of fish oil (EPA and DHA), higher levels of vitamin D, and oral probiotics, women are adding fermented foods (e.g., yogurt, homemade sauerkraut, and young coconut kefir) during pregnancy to increase the colonies of good bacterial flora in their intestines.
After Birth Strategies for Improving GI health of newborn
It has been shown that when newborns are given probiotics they have less incidence of asthma and allergies and other forms of inflammation (3). Other choices that enhance the health of the GI system in an infant are breastfeeding (4) – especially with the first milk or colostrum – that continues for at least 1 year and delays the introduction of solids. When solids are introduced, offering a varied, organic, hypoallergenic, and nutritious diet is recommended. Since good flora is destroyed by antibiotics, it makes sense to minimize their use in infancy. Using natural remedies including herbs, vitamins, probiotics, and freshly made organic vegetable juices can help the body fight off infection. In my opinion, since GI symptoms are commonly found in children with autism and we know ways to minimize the occurrence of GI symptoms, I consider it prudent to implement these effective strategies to minimize the likelihood of or prevent GI symptoms from developing.

Environmental Toxins, Impairment in Detoxification Pathways, and Their Role in Autism

What have we learned about environmental toxins and their role in autism? We know toxic chemicals have increased at an exponential rate for the past 50 years, with an average of 10 new chemicals introduced each day. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 87,000 chemicals are in widespread use and 2.2 million pounds of pesticides are sprayed on crops each year. We also know 85 billion pounds of plastic products are produced annually. The number of studies pointing to the detrimental health effects of environmental toxins (with many of them indicating a causal relationship with behavioral and developmental issues) in recent years has been astounding (5).

A 2006 report from the CDC found that the average American had 116 of the 148 synthetic compounds tested for – including the infamous dioxin, polycyclic hydrocarbons, and organochlorine pesticides. These same substances were also found in human milk, placental tissue, umbilical cord blood, and the blood and body fat of newborns.

The Environmental Working Group evaluated newborn babies born in U.S. hospitals in August and September 2004 and found an average of 200 chemicals and pollutants in their umbilical cord blood (8). Many of these toxins are known to be carcinogenic and, given a newborn’s porous and immature blood-brain barrier, the toxins are especially detrimental to the newborn’s neurological system.

Dr. Doris Rapp, a board certified environmental medical specialist, allergist, and author of Our Toxic World, A Wake Up Call, stated at a recent conference that she believes PCBs and other chemicals with hormone disrupting effects play a major role in explaining why 7 percent of all couples are now sterile; 50 percent of all pregnancies end in a stillbirth, miscarriage, birth defects or a chronic health problem; and why 7 out of every 1000 U.S. newborns die (which ranks the U.S. at number 34 tying with Poland and Slovakia for infant mortality) (7).

We are only beginning to assess the full range of damage to children caused by exposure to high (or even moderate) levels of these chemicals. But the information we do have is startling because, in addition to the transfer of these toxins from mother to baby in the womb, they are also transferable via breast milk. Moreover, since even a healthy newborn’s ability to excrete chemicals is not fully developed, they are more vulnerable to damage from these exposures than are the rest of us. To date, no health agency has officially declared environmental toxicity to be a major culprit in the autism epidemic, but research and opinions on this issue are changing rapidly. Studies done over the past few years are pointing to the role toxins play not only in the explosive increase of children being diagnosed with autism, but also in explaining why, as per a CDC Autism A.L.A.R.M. originally released in 2004, that 1 in 6 children in this country have a neurological, behavioral, or developmental problem.

A 2005 study in Environmental Health Perspectives (9) provided evidence that the closer a pregnant mother lived to pesticide application, the higher the chances were for her child to develop autism. Another study released in February 2009 showed a direct relationship between the presence of PVC flooring in a pregnant mother’s bedroom and the future development of autism spectrum disorders (10). Finally a report issued in December 2007 by the Collaborative on Health and the Environment’s Learning and Developmental Disabilities Initiative summed up the urgency of this problem by stating, “Given the established knowledge, protecting children from the neurotoxic environmental exposures . . . is an essential public health measure if we are to help prevent learning and developmental disorders. (11)”

Why then are all children exposed to environmental toxins not autistic? Dr. S. Jill James, director of the Metabolic Genomics Laboratory at the Arkansas Children’s Hospital Research Institute, helped answer this puzzling question when her research showed that a greater number of children with autism (than do the controls) have impairments in their methylation (detoxification) pathways (12). These inherited or genetic polymorphisms lead to a significant reduction in a child’s production of glutathione. Since glutathione is essential in the detoxification of chemicals, being deficient makes these children even more vulnerable than most to the damaging effects of toxins.

Knowing the information above helps us now in making new choices. Should we wait for the governmental agencies or the American Academy of Pediatrics to issue an edict telling women of childbearing age or men who plan on impregnating their partners to avoid as many chemicals as possible and to get tested or chelated for those chemicals before conception? Rather than wait for that to happen (which may take decades, if ever), I think a better idea is to exercise the precautionary principle and minimize our own (and, therefore, our offsprings’) exposure to as many toxins as possible. Common sense dictates that this one measure may help minimize the incidence of autism and other childhood disorders.

A Partial List of Tips for Reducing Toxic Load

• Switch to green cleaning and personal care products (e.g., shampoo, toothpaste, body lotion, facial cream). The average American home contains 3-10 gallons of hazardous materials, and 85 percent of the chemicals that are registered have never been tested for their impact on the human body. See the Green This! series of books by Deirdre Imus.
• Eat organically grown grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts, meat, chicken, and eggs (13).
• If a woman has taken many drugs – prescription or over-the-counter – or works or lives in a chemically-laden environment, she might consider a detoxification or cleansing program.
• Find a “green” dry cleaners (the chemical used in most dry cleaning facilities, perchlorethylene, is a known carcinogen (14).
• Use a stainless steel water bottle to carry and consume filtered water. Heated or not, the soft plastic bottles will release phthalates. Antimony can also be released from polyethylene terephthalate.
• For more information about water filters, click here.
• Safely remove mercury based amalgam fillings with a dentist associated with The American Holistic Dental Association at least 6 months before becoming pregnant and not while breastfeeding (15).
• Prior to conceiving, consult a natural health care clinician or physician well versed in treating GI disturbances as well as elevated levels of toxins and heavy metals. One option is to contact a naturopathic physician (ND) or a MD associated with the American College for Advancement in Medicine.
Minimize consumption of large fish.
• To build beneficial microflora, take high quality probiotics (in addition to improving levels of beneficial intestinal flora, these have been shown to decrease intestinal absorption of certain chemicals by facilitating their excretion (16)) and consume more fermented foods.
• Improve indoor air quality by opening the windows and creating cross ventilation.  When painting, choose low or no VOC (volatile organic compounds) paints. Select green building or remodeling products and allow adequate time for “non-green” building materials to outgas before moving back into the newly built or renovated nursery, room, or home.
• Reduce exposure to electromagnetic radiation by eliminating the use of microwave ovens, keeping cell phone usage to a minimum, and storing cell phones in your bag rather than in your pocket (17).
• Do do not sleep near a computer or other wireless devices.
• Use natural methods for controlling household and garden pests.
• Have children avoid playing on pressure treated wood decks and swing sets (source of arsenic).
• Minimize the use of fire retardant sleepwear (contains the toxic metal antimony).
• Purchase organic mattresses and linens.
• Remove shoes before entering the home to prevent contaminants from soil coming into the house (18).

Regarding vaccines

Although almost every article you read on this subject in the mainstream media states that all the studies have shown there is absolutely no link between vaccines and autism, that is simply not true. There is good science pointing to a connection (19). More importantly, there are thousands of parents of children with autism who can tell you they had a normal child until he or she received several vaccines in one day or that their child was vaccinated despite being ill. Although more research needs to be done, these accounts by intelligent, observant parents cannot be discounted. To me, these reports are of equal or greater importance than ANY scientific study.

Parents are choosing which vaccines to give after careful consideration of the child’s history and genetic background. For instance, if a child was born prematurely or has had recurrent ear infections, or if the parents have a history of autoimmune disorders or allergies, then these are indicators that the infant or toddler may not respond well to a vaccine (and certainly not when several are given at one time). I’d like to suggest discussing all of this with your pediatrician, but, unfortunately, most would not agree with the suggestion to postpone, spread out, or avoid vaccines based on a family history or current illness. As a matter of fact, I have heard several high ranking pediatricians say that a child’s immune system could handle hundreds of vaccines in one day. Honestly, what are these people thinking? And where are the studies proving their theory? They don’t exist! For a full discussion on safer ways to vaccinate, please see Are there Safer Ways to Vaccinate Our Children?

Due to a host of political and financial reasons, it will most likely be a long time before the pediatric profession or any health agency creates a public policy encouraging individuals to limit their exposure to toxins and eat an organic whole food diet, but frankly our kids can’t wait! As individuals, especially men and women of childbearing age, we need to get our own health – including our GI and detox issues – in order. We need to continue to empower ourselves with information regarding the hazards inherent in chemicals, minimize our exposure to them, and – of utmost importance – boost our nutritional status so we can decrease the damage caused by the toxins we can’t avoid. Although there are no guarantees in life, by using the information obtained from the many scientific studies on this subject and listening closely to parents who have successfully recovered their children from autism, we can make more informed common sense decisions allowing us to reclaim our role as the guardians of our children’s health.

1 – Buie, T., et al. Evaluation, diagnosis and treatment of gastrointestinal disorders in individuals with ASDs; A consensus report and recommendations for evaluations and treatment of common gastrointestinal problems in children with ASD. Pediatrics, Jan. 4, 2010.
2 – Perez, P.F., Dore’, J., Leclerc, M., et al. Bacterial imprinting of the neonatal immune system lessons from maternal cells. Pediatrics, March 2007;119(3):e724-32.
Labeta, M.O., Vidal, K., Nores, J. E., et al. Innate recognition of bacteria in human milk is mediated by a milk-derived highly expressed pattern recognition receptor, soluble CD14. J Exp Med, May 15, 2000;191(10):1807-12.
Hrncir, T., Stepankova, R., et al. Gut microbiota and lipopolysaccharide content of the diet influence development of regulatory T cells: studies in germ-free mice. BMC Immunol. Nov. 6, 2008; 6;9:65.
3 – Bjorksten, et al. Evidence of probiotics in prevention of allergy and asthma. Inflammation and Allergy 2005,4 599-60.
• 4 – Chirico, G., Marzollo, R., et al.Anti-infective properties of human milk. J Nutr. Sept. 2008;138(9):1801S-1806S.
• 5 – Landrigan, P.J., Schecter, C.B., Lipton, J.M., Fahs, M.C., Schwartz, J. Environmental pollutants and disease in American children: Estimates of morbidity, mortality and costs for lead poisoning, asthma, cancer and developmental disabilities. Environ Health Perspect. 2002; 110 (7):721-728.
o Kimua-Kuroda, J., Nagata, I., et al. Disrupting effects of hydroxyl-polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) congeners on neuronal development of cerebellar Purkinje cells: A possible causal factor for developmental brain disorder; Chemosphere, 2007, online www.sciencedirect.com
o Effects of environmental exposures on human development and reproduction. Proceedings of the Collaborative on Health and the Environment meeting, University of California, San Francisco, January, 2007.
o Eskenazi, B, Marks A et al. Organophosphate pesticide exposure and neurodevelopment in young Mexican-American children. Environmental Health Perspect., May 2007.115[51].
o Pogoda, J.M., Preston-Martin, S., Household pesticides and risk of pediatric brain tumors. Environ Health Perspect. 1997;105(11):1214-1220.
o Infante-Rivard, C., Labuda, D., et al. Risk of childhood leukemia associated with exposure to pesticides and with gene polymorphisms. Epidemiology 1999; 101(5): 481-487
7. MacDorman MF, Mathews TJ. Recent Trends in Infant Mortality in the United States. NCHS data brief, no 9. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. 2008
. Body Burden – The Pollution in Newborns; Environmental Working Group, July 14, 2005
9. http://www.medicalhomeinfo.org/health/Autism%20downloads/AutismAlarm.pdf.
8. Woodruff et al, Environmental Factors known to cause damage to children’s developing brain and neurological system: Pediatrics; 2004; 113(4):1133-40
9. Maternal residence Near Agricultural Pesticide Applications and Autism spectrum Disorders Among Children in the California Central Valley. Environmental Health Perspectives; July 30, 2007Molecular Psychiatry, November 10, 2005
10. Associations between indoor environmental factors and parental-reported autistic spectrum disorders in children 6-8 years of age. NeuroToxicology. Available online 2/10/09

11. www.iceh.org/pdfs/LDDI/LDDIStatement.pdf
12. James, SJ et al,Metabolic biomarkers of increased oxidatiave stress and impaired methyllation capacity in children with autism, Am J Clin Nutr. 2004 Dec; 80(6):1611-7
13. Organic Foods vs Supermarket Foods: Element Levels; J of Appl. Nutrition, 45 [1], 1993 35-39
14. Consumer Reports study in 1996 concluded 1/6700 will get cancer from wearing PERC cleaned clothing once per week. Dry Cleaning Alternatives online; http://consumerreports.org accessed March 16, 2007
15. Haley, B, FDA Presentation: An Evaluation of Dental Amalgam Mercury Release and Corresponding toxicology Concerns, September 7, 2006.

16. Kenji et al , Effect of Probiotics Bifidobacterium breve and Lactobacillus casei on Bisphenol A exposure in Rats; Biochem 72. 70672-1-7,2008
17. Resources regarding the biological effects of EMF’s August 2007 (available on www.bioinitiative.org, and the 2009 special EMF issue of the Journal of Pathophysiology.Public Health SOS: The Shadow Side of the Wireless Revolution, Camilla Rees, Magda Havas, PhD.
18. Meadows-Oliver J Ped Healthcare (2006). 20, 350-352
19. * Gallagher C, Goodman M,Hepatitis B triple series vaccine and developmental disability in US children aged 1-9 years, Toxicol Environ Chem 2008 90(5):997-1008.
* Shaw, Petrick et al, Aluminum hydroxide injections lead to motor deficits and motor neuron degeneration, Journal of Inorganic Biochemistry (2009)
*Thompson W, Price C, et al, Early thimerosal exposure and neuropsychological outcomes at 7 to 10 years. N Engl J Med. 2007;357(13):1281-1292.
* William TA, Mars AE et al, Risk of autistic disorder in affected offspring of mothers with a glutathione S-transferase P1 haplotype. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med.
* Kawashisma Y, Takekuma K, et al Detection and sequencing of measles virus from peripheral mononuclear cells from patients with inflammatory bowel disease and autism. * A Dig Dis Sci. 2000;45(4):723-729.
* Bradstreet, JJ, El-Dahr, J et al Detection of measles virus genomic RNA in cerebrospinal fluid of children with regressive autism: a report of three cases.,. J Am Phys Surgeons. 2004;9(2):38-45.
* Echeverria D, Woods JS, Heyer NJ, et al Chronic low-level mercury exposure, BDNF polymorphism, and associations with cognitive and motor function..Neurotoxicol Teratol. 2005;27(6):781-796.

Maureen H. McDonnell, RN

I am a registered nurse with a strong interest in helping to reverse the escalating number of children affected by chronic illnesses. After coordinating the Defeat Autism Now! Conferences for 10 years, I joined forces with Jill Urwick to form Saving Our Kids, Healing Our Planet. This website and our conferences focus on the role nutrition and toxins in the environment are playing in Autism, ADHD, childhood cancers, etc. More importantly, our goal is to offer solution-based information that is both practical and affordable.

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