June 5, 2013

Virender Sodhi, MD(Ayurved),ND

The incidence of autism in the United States has reached epidemic proportions. According to the Center for Disease Control, one in every 88 children is considered to be on the autism spectrum[1]. Perhaps more alarming than the fact that one in nearly every 90 children being on the scale, is the fact that diagnosis of autism has increased 50 fold in the last 40 years. Equally concerning is the fact that boys are four times more likely to be diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) than girls[2].

While science and research is demonstrating more progress with this frustrating, elusive and mysterious condition than ever before, many questions still remain about autism and autism spectrum disorder.

Although research has shed increasing light on the symptoms and potential causes of this condition, science has not yet pinpointed a direct cause, or reason, why people are born with or develop autism.

Defining Autism

Autism symptoms typically appear within the first three years of life. In other words, children diagnosed with autism will most likely exhibit some sort of cognitive developmental delay by age three. Autism is a cognitive developmental disorder that results in a variety of mental and developmental disorders. According to the National Disorder of Neurological Disorders, autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is characterized by communication impairments, social disorders and repetitive, predictive or restricted behaviors. It is important to understand that no two forms of ASD are alike, and each case manifests itself in a unique way in each individual.

Considering that no two forms of autism are the same, the condition is often described in degrees, or on a scale, most commonly known as the Autism Spectrum. While autism is the most severe form of the condition, Asperger’s Syndrome and pervasive developmental disorder are two forms of autism that are less severe, but still on the spectrum.

Recent statistics indicate that prevalence of autism has increased, on average, nearly 15% each year. Currently, the Center for Disease Control estimates that over 2 million Americans and 10 million people worldwide are diagnosed with autism, or known as autistic. To put that in perspective, autism is diagnosed on a more frequent basis than cancer, AIDS and diabetes combined[3]

Autism is more than a single condition; it is a complex brain disorder that manifests itself in most children before three years of age.

Signs and Symptoms of Autism

Resulting from a neurological condition, autism affects normal brain function; impacting the areas of the brain responsible for communication and social interactions[4]. Autism is a spectrum disorder; which means there are broad ranges or levels of severity associated with the condition. While no two cases of autism are identical, autism tends to demonstrate a number of indicating signs and symptoms. According to the American Speech, Language, and Hearing Association, children with autism may demonstrate difficulty adapting or functioning in the world most people consider “normal”. Signs and symptoms associated with autism typically fall into three categories, Communication, Social Skills, and Impaired Reaction to Everyday Activities; these signs and symptoms include:

Communication

  • limited or no speech or vocabulary
  • inability to express needs
  • trouble following simple directions or completing simple tasks
  • non-emotional speech pattern
  • difficulty or inability answering questions

Social Skills

  • non-emotional, inability or discomfort in displaying affection (hugs, handshakes, etc)
  • emotional outbursts during normal interactions (anger, fear, excessive crying, laughing, etc)
  • difficulty engaging with peers or making friends
  • fixation and/or obsession with certain topics or items
  • inability to make eye contact

Impaired Reaction to Everyday Activities

  • self-stimulation (hand flapping, rocking, twirling hair, etc)
  • inability to cope with minor change in routines
  • abnormal or no response to typically dangerous situations
  • attachment to certain objects or people
  • sensitivity to light, textures, foods, and noises

Hypothesis / Causes

While the exact causes of autism or ASD are not exactly known, scientists and researchers believe that genetics, environment, or a combination of both play a role in the development of the condition. According to research conducted by the Mayo Clinic, several genes appear to be connected or involved when autism is suspected or diagnosed[5]. There are many genes in the human body. The development or lack of development of certain genes may increase the susceptibility of autism. Other genes are directly related to the development of the brain; mutations or abnormality in the genetic development in these areas of the brain are also thought to contribute to the disorder. The development of, and relationship between, other genes are also thought to impact the severity and/or number of symptoms associated with autism.

While genes are thought to contribute to autism in some aspect, environmental factors are also thought to contribute to the disorder. Research demonstrates that most environmental factors thought to contribute to the condition of autism occur before birth, and may include a wide variety of items, including advanced age of both parents, oxygen deprivation while in utero, the mother’s health during pregnancy, mother’s health care (including access to prenatal vitamins), exposure to certain viruses and infection (including encephalitis, meningitis, measles, etc), exposure to pollution (air, water or other).

Perhaps one the most controversial, yet most misunderstood, theories of autism development is that of the role certain vaccines play in the process; specifically the Measles, Mumps, Rubella (MMR) vaccine. The initial connection between autism and the MMR vaccine began as the result of a study conducted and published by Andrew Wakefield in 1998[6]. Wakefield’s study, published in The Lancet, concluded that there was a relationship between the MMR vaccine and the development of autism. The findings of this study indicated that since MMR vaccine was administered between 12 and 15 months of age, and initial symptoms of autism appear between 15 and 18 years of age, there is a potential link between the MMR vaccine and autism. In addition, a study authored by Greier & Greier demonstrates a close correlation between mercury doses from thimerosal-containing childhood vaccines and the prevalence of autism from the late 1980s through the mid-1990s.

While several studies funded by the government and conducted in Europe and in the United States have since raised question to the validity of these studies, many people continue to believe there is a strong relationship between thimerosal, MMR vaccine and the development of autism. Adding to the controversy, recent government action awarded millions of dollars to two autistic children for pain and suffering while not admitting that this was the result of MMR vaccine (and being a sealed case)[7].

Diagnosis and Medical Treatment

Diagnosing autism or an autism spectrum disorder may demonstrate a frustrating process. Unlike many disorders or conditions, autism does not have a standard medical test that results in a conclusive diagnosis of the condition. Pediatricians look for signs of age appropriate, benchmark cognitive growth and development during regular and routine checkups. Since parents spend the most time with their children, and most cases of autism are diagnosed before age 3, they typically observe developmental delays in language, social skills or cognitive development that may indicate a likelihood of the condition. Children suspected of having autism are often referred to a specialist who will diagnosis the condition as autism or an autism spectrum disorder if the child exhibits six or more of the symptoms mention above.

There is not a cure for autism. Considering that each case of autism is different, there isn’t even one type of therapy or counseling that is best for autism as a whole. Each case must be addressed on an individual level, building a program that is best for the individual case.

What is quite standard, and quite concerning, is the likelihood that modern medical doctors will use powerful medications to control, manage or silence the typical and most common symptoms of autism. These medications may include antidepressants, antipsychotics, ADHD medications, as well as medications to assist with sleep disorders. The willingness to distribute these powerful mind altering medications to children is concerning as long-term effects on cognitive and physical development are still largely unknown. A growing population of medical professionals are calling for the natural treatment of symptoms related to autism through therapies using proven herbal medicines.

In the Next Newsletter we will discuss treatment options with natural and Ayurvedic medicine.

References