After being informed that there is no known cause of autism, parents learn that there is no universal treatment for autism. This is when despair and frustration generally take hold of parents.
You may see families deal with autism on a daily basis by watching the video Autism Everyday, available on the Autism Speaks Web site.
Understanding the Autistic Spectrum
Autism is one of the pervasive developmental disorders (PDDs). PDDs include three main subtypes: classic autism, Asperger’s syndrome and Pervasive Developmental Disorder, Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS). Although there are many differences among autism, ADHD, OCD and learning disorders, many similarities exist concerning the areas of the brain involved. These different conditions or “labels” are likely all interrelated and represent varying degrees of brain dysfunction.
What Do PDDs Do?
In general terms, PDDs are developmental, behavioral and biological syndromes with symptoms and signs that are quite variable. Symptoms and signs include inattention, hyperactivity, poor social interaction and communication, hypotonia, inadequate response to others’ emotions, social withdrawal, uncoordinated movement, delayed language development, poor eye contact, abnormal eye and tongue movements, gastrointestinal disturbances, obsessive thoughts and behaviors, food sensitivities and a heightened reaction to light, sound and touch.
The brain functions like a super computer that controls and coordinates everything about the body, including all “higher functions” such as thoughts, emotions and communication skills. The human brain contains about 100 billion nerve cells, with each having up to 10,000 interconnections! With that many cells and connections, there are many windows of opportunity for things to go wrong, both prenatally and after birth. In fact, one main theory for the cause of autistic spectrum disorders is that brain cells and brain areas are “underconnected” or not communicating enough.
Underconnectivity creates a conflict between information coming into the brain (sensory information like touch, taste, sight, hearing, smell and balance) and how the information is processed to form the brain’s outgoing expressions (like thinking, feeling, speaking, walking and running internal organ systems). When there is a deviation in the way the brain works, an individual experiences various PDD symptoms.
PDD symptoms are categorized into a diagnosis, or label, allowing medical providers and insurance companies to discuss a patient’s disorder. But, it is my professional opinion that a particular label is not as important as a complete evaluation to understand what is working properly (the functioning) and what is not (the dysfunctioning) in each individual. This thorough evaluation enables doctors to create a comprehensive course of care for each particular patient.
What Does Recent Research Indicate?
Recent research suggests that PDDs are interrelated disorders— with autism representing the greatest level of brain dysfunction, and ADD representing the least. I feel that the research on autism also offers an overview of all spectrum disorders. Following are some important nuggets of research to consider:
- Autism has commonly been described as a brain-based disorder that is strongly genetic, although, to date, no specific genes appear to cause autism. Similarly, autism should be viewed as a “genetically influenced, systemic problem” rather than a “strongly genetic, brain-based” condition. Both genes and environment likely play a role in the development of autism spectrum disorders.
- At present, the only common underlying mechanism affecting autism spectrum disorders seems to involve abnormal brain connectivity, such as the structural and/or functional factors related to brain connections and coordination.
- Autism occurs when pervasive processing and connectivity abnormalities are severe enough that brain dysfunction crosses a threshold. As a result, an autistic child exhibits a set of defining behavioral deficits.
- Connectivity problems further inhibit a child’s brain systems, preventing the child from completely grasping language and other systems of communication.
- Problematic behaviors may also be responses to sensory and processing challenges.
- Somatic symptoms, including allergies, GI difficulties and sleep problems, may be related to other defining symptoms of autism.
- Both defining and somatic symptoms of autism are manifestations of signaling and metabolic conflicts.
With the number of autism cases rising significantly every month, this is truly an epidemic. Studying autism is not enough! Innovative, research-based treatment programs must be developed NOW.
The key to treating autism is first to understand the biomedical and neurological underpinnings of the disorder. Autism is not a primary mental disease, as one might think (as it is classified as such in the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders”). Rather, it is a complex syndrome of chemical imbalances and neurological dysfunction that can be objectively evaluated through a careful neurological examination and functional assessment of blood and urine samples. Biomedical treatment methods can be based on correcting the imbalances found in common biochemical cellular reactions. Neurological treatment methods may be found by targeting neural pathways that affect degrading tissue, connectivity and/or processing.
These therapies that challenge biochemical, sensory and social-emotional networks may positively alter autistic children’s behaviors and, ultimately, their future as productive citizens of society and role models for the next generation.