When a disorder shows exponential rate increases and becomes the fastest-growing developmental disability, according to the CDC, it’s something worth looking into. It’s happening with Autism. It’s now affecting as many as 1 in 68 children in America and in the 10 year span from 2000-2010 there was a 119.4% increase in autism in the U.S. Autism has become such a “mainstream” disorder that it’s now being portrayed on Sesame Street. The iconic children’s show, which has been on the air for 46 years, welcomes a new autistic character, Julia.
Despite the prevalence of Autism, it’s still touchy subject. Only 10% of Autism cases have a known causation. The other 90% are simply diagnosed with no known cause. This leads to many theories about possible causes, and not all have adequate research to determine their validity. More research needs to be done, because with cases of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) becoming more and more frequent there is more to learn about why.
What Are the Causes of Autism?
There’s no one cause of, and that adds to the complicated task of dissecting it’s rise. It is believed that both genetics and environmental factors play a role in ASD. Some studies indicate a disruption in normal brain development could result in ASD. Currently there are as many as 100 genes or gene mutations that increase the risk of developing autism. But genetics aren’t the only cause.
There is one specific case of autism, Maternal AutoAntibody-Related autism, that occurs when the mother’s antibodies attack cells in the brain of the fetus during pregnancy. Antibodies are usually beneficial to fight off bacteria or viruses, but when they attack one’s own tissue, they become autoantibodies. Mother’s have no control on whether or not they develop these autoantibodies, but it can be attributed to up to 23% of autism cases.
As for causes from the environment, that has been harder to pinpoint. Ultimately it boils down to certain environmental exposures increasing the risk of ASD.
- There is evidence to show the age of the mother at the time of conception and premature and low birth weight babies may be more at risk.
- Research has found a correlation between certain exposure to the mother during pregnancy and autism. Specifically, maternal rubella infection, certain insecticides, and other drugs such as thalidomide, misoprostol, and valproic acid.
- Even where the mother lives while she is pregnant can affect her child’s risk. For example, a mother who lives within 1000 feet of a freeway doubles the odds of her child having autism.
- In another scientific study a direct correlation was found between autism and both the poundage pesticides used and the proximity to agricultural fields. The more exposure the children had, the greater their risk of having ASD. Additional research suggests that glyphosate, a popular herbicide used on food crops, may have the ability to induce disease, like autism.
- Children with ASD were found to have higher than average levels of heavy metals in their hair, and the more metals detected, the more severe their symptoms.
- Exposure to toxic metals in early childhood can increase the likelihood. Children are susceptible to things like lead, mercury, and cadmium, among others things. Autism rates increased 2.6% for every 1000 pounds of industrial mercury released into the environment.
- Heavy metal toxicity may be passed from the parents, through genes and other factors, such as breast milk. (1)
- Toxins are stored mostly in the fat cells, and since the brain is made up of primarily fat, those heavy metals are present to cause damage to the developing brain. (1)
- Even the use of plastics increases the risk of developing autism due to BPA and phthalates.
Why are Autism Rates Increasing?
Some suggest the rise can be attributed to the change in how it is diagnosed. In 1994 it was determined that autism falls somewhere on a spectrum. Children are being more frequently diagnosed because where they may not have been labeled autistic before, they now fall somewhere on that spectrum. In addition, autism awareness has grown in the past decade or so, with more talk of the disorder. This awareness can be lead to more cases being diagnosed. Even if this diagnosis-based factor is considered, research attributes it to only 60% of the increases. The other 40% still remains to be determined.
As mentioned above, parental age can be a factor in the child having ASD. In the past two decades the age at which people are having children has shifted to be later and later. It’s estimated that 11% of the rise in autism rates is due to the increase in parental age. This still leaves a significant portion of the rise is yet to be determined.
It is likely related to environmental factors, as genetics are predetermined and wouldn’t be responsible for such a large increase. Or perhaps it’s a combination of specific genes mixed with certain environmental exposure. The total load on the body can send things past the tipping point and lead to autism. Total load is a term used to describe all contributing factors that put stress on our bodies; toxic exposure, physical and emotional stressors, and other more.
What Can be Done?
With no one cause to blame for the growing number of autism cases, the best we can do is limit exposure to known and suspected substances during pregnancy, as well as do things we know are beneficial to healthy growth and development. Essentially we need to decrease the toxic load on the body.
- Discuss medications with your doctor and know the risks.
- Ensure you are getting enough folate for you and your baby. Folate is naturally found in certain foods such as spinach, beans, and more. It’s also available in supplement form. Folate and folic acid are often used interchangeably, but folic acid is the synthetic version.
- Opt for glass or stainless steel containers to limit exposure to phthalates found in plastics.
- Limit processed foods that may have packaging that will leach phthalates and BPA into your food.
- If possible, try to live away from pollution sources such as agricultural fields and freeways.
- Avoid alcohol and cigarettes while pregnant, as they are known to affect fetal development.
- Choose organic food to avoid synthetic pesticide residue and refer to the EWG’s list of produce ranked by pesticide levels.
- Use clean personal care products without artificial ingredients or fragrance, which can contain dozens of potentially hazardous synthetic chemicals.
- Limit consumption of seafood to once a week to avoid possible exposure to harmful DDT, PCBs, and mercury.
- Steer clear of toxic fumes and PFCs (perfluorinated compounds) such as paints, new furniture, pesticides, non-stick cookware, and more.
You can also discuss your exposure with your doctor. This environmental exposure assessment can pinpoint possible risks in your daily life.