Autism - from a naturopathic perspective

Autism - Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASD)

As a practitioner, I see children (and adults) with autistic spectrum disorders ,(ASD), in our clinic consistently.  I see the impact the disorders can have on the kids, parents and wider social networks.  With kids especially, I can see how their energy and enthusiasm for life can be sapped.  And the rates of autism continue to rise, according to the published research.  It is estimated that in 1970, autism affected only about 1 in 10,000 people, while today it affects up to 109 per 10,000 people.  Improved diagnosis may account for some of this increase, but not all.  

Autism - is the cause purely genetic or behavioural?

Although the cause of ASD is commonly thought of as being mainly genetic or behavioural, more research is emerging that casts doubt on this theory.  For example, did you know that the incidence of autism is greater in regions with more rainfall than in nearby regions with less rainfall?!  It would seem unlikely that more of a vulnerable genotype or behavioural pattern would by chance live in an area with more rainfall, suggesting environmental factors may also contribute to ASD.

 The above figure shows the prevalence in ASD in Washington was higher than the state average in counties that had recordered higher annual rainfall, suggesting an environmental factor contributing to ASD (A - rainfall map, B- autism rate map).  Source: Waldman et al, (2008),  Autism prevalence and precipitation rates in California, Oregon, and Washington counties ,  Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med.  2008 Nov;162(11):1026-34. doi: 10.1001/archpedi.162.11.1026.

The above figure shows the prevalence in ASD in Washington was higher than the state average in counties that had recordered higher annual rainfall, suggesting an environmental factor contributing to ASD (A - rainfall map, B- autism rate map).

Source: Waldman et al, (2008), Autism prevalence and precipitation rates in California, Oregon, and Washington counties, Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2008 Nov;162(11):1026-34. doi: 10.1001/archpedi.162.11.1026.

Other areas of research implicate possible hormone imbalances and medication usage in pregnant mothers.  A recent large study of 23, 748 individuals with ASD in Sweden found that autism was 59% more prevalent in children born to women with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS - a hormone imbalance common in women).  

Another recent study found that a leading class of antidepressants dramatically increases the risk of ASD offspring in pregnant mothers taking these medications, (by as much as 200%)!

Autism - the gut-brain-immune approach

Central to the naturopathic approach to managing autism is an understanding of the gut-brain-immune axis.  These three keys components of the body are linked, constantly talking to one another and influencing each other.  In fact, just recently it was discovered that our immune system is linked directly to the brain via tiny vessels from the lymphatic system.  Hence, issues with our digestion can influence our brain chemistry, as can problems occuring with our immune system.  This is why allergies and autism can so often be inter-linked, for example.  

Autism Treatment - using Nutritional and Naturopathic Medicine 

So, as naturopaths and nutritionists our job is to identify where the imbalances lie in these three areas, and how we can address them using nutrients, herbs, dietary plans and probiotic therapy.  Sounds easy right, but the reality is somewhat more complex, especially when we have to assess everything from enviromental toxin exposure, to possible dietary allergens, through to hormonal imbalances during pregnancy.  And often the road is long, takes many twists and turns, but in the end is worthwhile for the patients, and their families.

To find out more about our approach to autism, click here