Thursday, July 7, 2011

Environment is a top suspect in autism

Finally! And perfect timing, too. The National Institute of Mental Health dropped a bomb about autism on a national holiday. How convenient. When most of us were having picnics and spending time with family in preparation for Independence Day fireworks, the NIMH decided to quietly “surprise” the public with the fact that the environment is now considered a main causation of autism, more than genetics.

I think the Managing Editor of Age of Autism said it best:
Autism affects upward of 1% of American kids today. There "is no cure." There is no test. There is precious little hope for treatment in mainstream medicine. It's a crisis for America the likes of which we have never seen. And so the NIMH puts out a press release ON A NATIONAL HOLIDAY. Meanwhile, how many of our kids are cowering under a bed right now instead of reveling in the fireworks and family celebrations because of their autism? And what does THEIR independence look like tomorrow?

From The New York Times: The new study marked an important shift in thinking about the causes of autism, which is now thought to affect at least 1 percent of the population in the developed world. “This is a very significant study because it confirms that genetic factors are involved in the cause of the disorder,” said Dr. Peter Szatmari, a leading autism researcher. There has been growing acceptance that genes do not tell the whole story, in part because autism rates appear to have increased far faster than our genes can evolve.

From the San Francisco Chronicle:
Environmental factors play a more important role in causing autism than previously assumed and, surprisingly, an even larger role than genetics, according to a new study out of UCSF and Stanford that could force a dramatic swing in the focus of research into the developmental disorder.

Does this come as a surprise to anyone? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? Heck, no! Apparently the scientists were surprised. ((insert sarcastic “DUH!” here))

Parents like me have been saying the environment is a problem for years. I can’t think of a single parent of a child with autism (and trust me, I know a lot of them!) that believes their child’s autism is purely genetic. Most believe that the environment is the culprit. If it was not the reason, than it was one of the top reasons. I believe this to be true in my own family with both of my sons.

My own personal opinion is shared by many others: genetics loads the gun and the environment pulls the trigger. I definitely think there is something to be said about genetic susceptibility and environmental assaults adding to toxic load, ultimately leading to an autism diagnosis. I wrote about this and other things when I reviewed Jenny McCarthy’s book, Mother Warriors. Here’s a little snippet from that post:

The way I like to think about autism is that our kids each have a row of dominoes stacked just so, with each one a possible trigger or tipping point. There are many dominoes, and each domino on their own is seemingly insignificant, such as: allergies, reflux, eczema, ear infections, diarrhea, food intolerances, asthma, chemicals in the home, pesticides on our food, heavy metals exposure, fluoride and chlorine in our water, candida overgrowth, the vaccine schedule, genetic predisposition, etc. The list seems to be endless and I have by no means included everything that could ultimately be involved. When one or more of these dominoes gets bumped and the dominoes are close enough together for the bump to make an impact, I believe it triggers the cascading fall into autism. The sum of all of the parts equates to a life-changing diagnosis.

As a parent, studies like this have 2 sides. First, they are extremely gratifying. They prove that the hardcore parents who research endlessly for ways to treat and help their children with autism are not the crazed lunatics they are made out to be. In most cases, the medical system has failed them. The parents keep vigil on behalf of their children, paving new roads for their care because no one else will, and yet they’re made out to be a villain for doing so because it goes against the grain. We are justified. Our choices are sound. In fact, we were right all along!

Second, the other side is that studies like this are extremely frustrating. Sometimes they feel like a huge waste of time and money, often proving what most of us already knew to be true just by living our lives with our children. It doesn’t help us get through today or tomorrow any better.

I understand the need for scientific study, especially since my original choice of study and intended career were in Biology. I get it. We need the scientific process. But, I am now a bit disillusioned by the whole thing. Frankly, I don’t really care all that much if there is a higher incidence of autism in families who live near the freeway or that autism and birth order might be related. I care about helping the generation of children with autism and their struggling families TODAY.

As Jenny McCarthy said in her book, People can say there is no science to support our beliefs about the causes of autism and ways to treat it, but there is plenty of evidence. Just walk into the homes of families who have children with autism. They’ll be happy to introduce you to their science.”

I will say that I am happy that they are starting to figure it out. Keep coming our direction, highly-paid executives, doctors and scientists. We’re waiting for you! In the meantime, all of us parent warriors will continue blazing our own trails and hope that eventually the mainstream medical and scientific community will catch up to us someday. They’ll finally figure out that we were right all along. Gee, won’t they be surprised?   

P.S. I found some additional content at the 11th hour after I'd already completed this post. Rather than re-write it to cleverly include the new stuff, I'm just going to place it here at the end and save myself the time.

I stumbled upon another great read about this issue and highly recommend you check it out! Lisa Ackerman, the founder of TACA, did a great job summarizing this study and how we can move forward with this "new" information. She quoted a physician who recently gave a lecture she attended and I love what he said. “If an adult stopped talking or regressed in their skills, physicians would order a myriad of tests including an MRI.  When a child regresses or stops talking we just call it autism.”

This is the very attitude that is pervasive among pediatricians today and it needs to stop. That's my 2 cents. Or maybe we're up to a full dime by now! Anyway, please feel free to leave your comments below and add to this rant discussion.     

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