Autism: Why It’s Not Simply a Brain-Based Disorder

While researchers still have no conclusive thesis about the cause of autism, many now agree that the condition involves far more than just the brain. Experience Life first reported on this revised understanding in 2011, in the feature “Autism’s Puzzle,” and last month a new report issued by the patient advocacy group Autism Speaks also describes autism as a “whole body disorder” that involves multiple health challenges, including digestive issues, sleep difficulties, and seizures.

Children with autism have a 10 to 30 percent higher incidence of epilepsy, for example, and they’re nearly eight times more likely than their peers to experience gastrointestinal distress like gas, diarrhea, and constipation, according to the report. They also suffer higher rates of ADHD and anxiety.

The report is not the first to assert that autism is a multisystem disorder. In a 2005 paper, Harvard pediatric neurologist Martha Herbert, MD, PHD, identified the association of autism with multiple ills — largely metabolic and autoimmune issues — that affect different organs in the body. A year later Herbert would assert that genetic factors involved in detoxification may make autism sufferers more vulnerable to environmental toxins, which can play a critical role in damaging the brain’s circuitry as well as other systems.

This expanded perception has meant that for people and families struggling with autism, there are more treatment choices available.

The new report suggests lifestyle interventions for dealing with chronic sleep disruption can help relieve some behavioral issues. And while it asserts that there is limited evidence to support the efficacy of dietary interventions, many functional-medicine practitioners have reported notable symptom reduction with an elimination diet. Others use targeted supplements to address potential weaknesses in detoxification, which has also seemed to reduce autism symptoms.

Each autism case is unique, so there is no magic bullet. But the growing acceptance of autism as a complex chronic illness offers good reason to hope that a broader understanding will continue to lead to more treatment approaches — and symptom relief.

To learn more about how functional-medicine practitioners approach the metabolic, genetic, and environmental aspects of autism, check out “Autism’s Puzzle.”

Courtney Helgoe

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Courtney Helgoe

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