The new higher autism numbers represent a public health crisis that needs response now. Although some of the increase is surely due to better diagnosis, most experts agree that some or a lot of it is real, and due to as-yet unknown environmental factors.
These numbers make sense if you understand the new trends in autism research and systems biology.
In my new book The Autism Revolution: Whole Body Strategies for Making Life All It Can Be (Harvard Health Publications and Random House/Ballantine, March 27, 2012) I lay out science-based approach to autism that sees it as a web of interconnected brain, body and environmental problems, many of which can be addressed and improved. This opens the way to public health approaches that can be implemented now, with presently available knowledge.
Here are some of the key points that I think should inform a science-based response to autism increases:
- MORE THAN GENES: We used to think that genes overwhelmingly cause autism, but now we’re realizing that while genes create vulnerability our daily environment (including what we eat, what products we use) can make things a whole lot worse – or a whole lot better.
- Emerging science is telling us that genes are not the overwhelming cause of autism, but contributors to risk alongside of environmental factors. Studies have shown that both genetic and environmental factors contribute to each case of autism. For instance, women who do not take prenatal vitamins have a higher risk of having an autistic child – and all the more so if they carry certain risk mutations. The scientific understanding of autism’s causes, though evolving, is entirely consistent with the possibility that numbers could be going up.
- MORE THAN BRAIN: We used to think that autism was a brain disorder, but now we know that it’s a condition of the whole body that affects the brain too.
- Meanwhile we are also coming to appreciate that autism affects not only the brain but the whole body. Autism’s severity and its difficult behaviors are made worse by medical problems – like sleep issues, allergies and digestive troubles – and better when these medical problems are treated.
- NOT MENTAL RETARDATION: We used to equate autism with mental retardation, but now we know that most people with autism are quite intelligent and often brilliant.
- We are learning that if we test someone who has trouble communicating with a language-based IQ test they look as if they have an intellectual disability, but if we give them visual challenges they often test in the normal range. We have been greatly overestimating the amount of intellectual disability in autism spectrum disorders. Autism affects someone’s ability to communicate; not their ability to think. Moreover people with autism offer different and valuable perspectives.
- NOT A LIFE SENTENCE: We used to think that autism was a life sentence, but now we’re learning from children who get better that autism may be not so much a lifelong “trait” as a stubborn but changeable “state.”
- We are also learning that there are many ways to improve quality of life and level of function in autism. We used to think that autism was a genetically determined life sentence, but now even severe genetic syndromes have been reversed in the laboratory by scientists at leading institutions like MIT. This supports what parents have been telling us for a long time – some kids with autism get substantially better. And it suggests that autism may not be a permanent “trait” of a damaged brain, but have aspects more like a stubborn “state” where something is blocking the brain from some coordination and communication functions – and perhaps at the same time enhancing other capabilities.
- NOT A UNIQUE GENETIC SYNDROME BUT A HETEROGENEOUS CHRONIC CONDITION THAT HAS COMMONALITIES WITH OTHER CHRONIC CONDITIONS ALSO ON THE RISE:
- Many of autism’s health problems are also common in other chronic illnesses, such as asthma, obesity and irritable bowel syndrome. Many studies show that these problems can be reduced by eating a healthy plant-based diet, getting good sleep and plenty of exercise, and reducing stress. These approaches may enhance the capacity of people with autism to communicate and to live independently.
If you still believe that autism is a genetically determined hopeless lifelong impairment, you will look at the rising numbers and say “they cannot be real.”
If you understand what emerging systems biology is telling us, you will see children developing autism who were not destined to do so. You will see that autism’s rising numbers are part of the same larger trends bringing us increases in obesity, diabetes and a host of other chronic health conditions. And you will also see things we can do right now to turn back these trends.
In The Autism Revolution I offer a practical approach based on rational, science-based wellness practices that can help people with autism achieve their full and often extraordinary potential. On a larger scale it also represents a public health program we can implement right now. This program can lead not only to less autism but also to healthier families and communities. Taking these simple steps can reduce risk and severity in autism – and these steps can be taken now without waiting for another report from the CDC or a full explanation of what’s causing autism.
To overcome this public health crisis, we need an Autism Revolution now, before the numbers get even worse.