Monday, September 24, 2012

What Causes Autism?

That’s the billion dollar question and there have been a number of studies that draw questionable conclusions. Researchers seem desperate to pin this exponentially increasing epidemic on the parents and their studies seek to find evidence our children were affected in-utero--either through genetics or other questionable causes. A key point to remember is correlation is not causation…and correlation can be weak. Here are some of the latest theories:
  • Researcher Moises Velasquez-Manoff theorizes the lack of parasites in the developed world has left the immune system without appropriate targets to attack—hence, causing auto-immune disorders. He believes autism is an inflammatory disorder.
  •  Simon Baron-Cohen (cousin of Sacha Baron Cohen, aka “Borat”) hypothesizes autism is caused by “assortive mating”, i.e., that people are now more likely to meet others like themselves genetically in the workplace…engineers marrying engineers.
  • There are some who posit autism is part of the evolution of man, as though the autistic brain is a part of Darwinian natural selection. 
  •  Researchers in Iceland found paternal age to be a factor.
  • A recent study found maternal obesity increases the risk of autism.
  • Self-advocate John Elder Robison believes parents of autistic children are themselves “Protoautistic”—that we exhibit autistic traits and tendencies but are not ourselves autistic. 
  •  In the vein of John Elder Robison’s thinking, and perhaps my favorite—autistics are born to schizoid parents. I had to look up the definition of “schizoid”. According to the Mayo Clinic:
“Schizoid personality disorder is a condition in which affected people avoid social activities and consistently shy away from interaction with others. If you have schizoid personality disorder, you may be seen as a loner, and you may feel as though you have no idea how to form personal relationships.
To others, you may appear dull or humorless. Because you don't tend to show emotion, you may appear as though you don't care about what's going on around you. However, although you may seem aloof, you may actually feel extremely sensitive and lonely.
The cause of schizoid personality disorder is unknown. Therapy and medications can help.”

Now that I’ve finished chuckling, I want to say I know a lot of parents of autistic kids, and would not put one of us in the “schizoid” category. Talk about grasping at straws.

Looking at the list of theories, we can draw a few conclusions: scientists and others in the medical community still do not know definitively what causes autism; there’s a lot of grant money out there to study it; we’ll keep on seeing studies trying to correlate almost anything to an autism diagnosis to keep universities well-funded; and these studies must show that whatever it is that causes autism does not occur after birth, as many parents firmly believe. 

Most cases of autism are declared idiopathic, i.e., of unknown cause, but the prevalence continues to grow at an alarming rate. It’s not just autism on the rise. Developmental Disabilities are now very common. A Centers for Disease Control study recently showed about 1 in 6 children in the U.S. had a developmental disability in 2006 – 2008. That figure should open a few eyes.
Even if we don’t know the direct cause of autism (and other developmental disabilities) I think what we can say is there is genetic susceptibility caused by environmental assault. The burning question is: What is the Environmental Assault?
We have an increasingly polluted environment, fluoridated water (fluoride is a neurotoxin—it’s an ingredient in sarin, and what’s in your water is not pharmaceutical-grade, but a by-product of the fertilizer industry), pesticides, heavy metals, and a vaccine schedule on steroids. These could certainly be contributing factors.
I realize mentioning the “V” word is considered controversial, but there are many parents who saw clear regression in their children following vaccination. The medical establishment would like these parents to believe it was simply coincidental that their normal, healthy, walking and talking kids suddenly became sick with a host of different medical complaints and unable to speak or communicate. I don’t believe in such coincidences.

But I also don’t believe there is any one cause of autism. I’ve seen many autistic kids and they are all different. I’m no molecular biologist, but I suspect there are different pathways into autism, and these pathways will respond to different treatments.

One thing is certain, though: autism rates are steadily increasing and our nation cannot afford the tsunami of kids who will age out of the education system and will become the taxpayer’s burden. These kids will have to live somewhere, will have to be fed, and will have to have their medical needs provided for. This will be very expensive and make no mistake—society will bear these costs for the preponderance of cases.

More targeted research must be done. While autism receives far less funding than far less prevalent childhood diseases, it seems to be a classic case of throwing money at a problem and hoping something sticks. Until we know the causes, we will not be able to prevent this growing crisis. No topics should be off the table for the sake of political correctness or fear of what we might learn--we may have to face some uncomfortable truths.

So what causes autism? I don’t know but we had better find out—and soon.

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