Could changing the way we manage autism help curb the “epidemic?”

It’s hard to put a number on exactly how many children in South Africa are affected by autism, but it’s fair to say that that number is high, and its growing. For example, in the Western Cape alone, up to 10 children a week are diagnosed with the condition. Over the years, autism has gathered some bad press, especially when it comes to what causes it. Traditionally believed to be caused by poor parenting and then by vaccinations (it’s not!), the “unknown” element of the condition has created a negative stigma against those who suffer from it.

It’s an area of great interest to many specialists in the field. The challenge is to ensure new developments and breakthroughs are filtered down to the doctors who are interacting directly with their patients. And this is where things can get a bit “muddy”. Autism is conventionally considered a “neurological disorder” and doctors at medical school are trained to manage it as such. But what if it’s NOT that simple? What if there are other factors involved, and with a change in how we treat autism, many of its symptoms could subside?

A holistic view of autism

One of the more popular views about autism is that it could be a whole-body disorder that affects the brain, and that a toxic environment triggers certain genes in people susceptible to the condition. In other words, “unhealthy” immune function or gut health could impact the way the brain works, producing the symptoms of autism. Thinking about autism in this way opens a myriad of different and alternative treatment options. The underlying goal here is to look at the body at the cellular level, and try to treat the root cause, rather than simply managing symptoms.

Here’s a good example:

A child wouldn’t concentrate and shakes his head from side to side. Regarded as ‘unteachable’”. On closer examination, doctors discovered:

  • The child had reflux, which prevented him from sleeping well at night
  • The child had abnormal gut bacteria and was in constant pain, which interfered with sleep and regular eating patterns
  • Together, the poor sleep and feelings of being uncomfortable led to hyper-activity and head shaking
  • Treating the problems in the gut improved the child’s sleep, behaviour and attention span and autistic symptoms “disappeared”

Often, the reverse happens. Reflux or stomach pains are thought to occur because of autism, not the other way around. So, medication may be given to correct the symptoms, but the underlying problem is never addressed. This is just one example of many, where doctors have delved deeper into an autistic patient, only to discover problems at the biological level. Evidence suggests that amongst those who have been diagnosed with autism, there are several common physical challenges. Some of these include:

  • Immune system difficulties
  • Mineral deficiencies (zinc, magnesium, selenium)
  • Malabsorption/malnutrition
  • Impaired neuronal development
  • Gluten sensitivity
  • Impaired secretin signalling (to assist liver and pancreas function)
  • Impaired detoxification (by the liver)
  • Impaired antioxidation
  • Omega-3 fatty acid deficiency
  • Significant food allergies
  • Impaired pancreatic function (has implications to digestion and glucose regulation)
  • Frequent viral and bacterial infections
  • Vitamin deficiencies
  • Autoimmunity
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Every child is unique

What’s important to remember is that no two children are the same. What is possible is that some children are simply “primed” for certain environmental factors to trigger symptoms. For example, they may have very weak immune systems, or an auto-immune condition. The combination of this with regular infections, antibiotic use, food allergies, etc., may cause, in some children, a “shut down” of certain systems in the body. It’s clear that there is no SINGLE, and obvious, cause for the condition, but rather the possibility of an accumulation of several different factors. By digging deeper, and identifying what these factors are, you can take steps to address them.


What can you do?

  1. Trust your gut instincts. The earlier a diagnosis can be made, the sooner the appropriate treatment can begin
  2. Eliminate any known allergens (dietary or environmental)
  3. Always be open and honest with your doctor. Never make any changes to treatments or medications without first consulting them
  4. Be realistic, a few changes to your and your child’s lifestyle is not a fool proof “cure” for autism. No two children are the same, neither are the treatments
  5. Get informed. Know all there is to know about alternative approaches to managing autism and be prepared to question your doctor!
  6. Be open to new possibilities around autism. Consider approaching the condition with a more holistic view and delving deeper into immunity, nutritional deficiencies and gut health
  7. Ensure your entire family lives a healthy, and well-balanced life

Jepson B, Johnson J. Changing the Course of Autism: A Scientific Approach for Parents and Physicians. Boulder, Colorado: Sentient Publications, 2007