The alarming statistics are that autistic conditions have increased by 2000 per cent in the past two decades. MINDD (Metabolic Immunolgical Neurologic Digestive Developmental) Forum founding director Leslie Embersits says that in 2013 the incidence of autism is, conservatively, one in 90 children. Other experts suggest as many as one in 50. The reason for this dramatic increase, Embersits suggests, is essentially a combination of factors: genetic vulnerability, the environmental exposure of kids to a wide range of synthetic toxins and their reduced capacity to detoxify effectively.
Each factor — genes, environment and detoxification ability — influences how a child’s development progresses. The multifaceted contributors to diseases on the autistic spectrum mean that much can be done to redirect health trajectories, maximise development during the small, crucial windows of neurological development and educate on how to nurture whole, healthy children growing up in a toxic world.
The integrative health model understands autism as a whole-body disease, not an isolated development disorder, with underlying inflammatory and hyper-reactivity processes involving multiple body systems. There is substantial evidence to show that brain development is intimately linked to digestive, immune and nervous system health. Therefore, through optimising these systems, major benefits can be noticed in children with autism and attention issues.
A common, and regularly ingested, irritant to the digestive tract is gluten, which is exceptionally high in modern Australian wheat.
One of the most significant issues, reinforced regularly at the MINDD Forum, is the generalised inflammation affecting autistic children. In part, this is due to their reduced capacity to detoxify irritating toxins from the body. These toxins come as part of the standard Australian diet, appropriately give the acronym SAD, which throws a barrage of aggravating pesticides, nutrient-depleting foods and irritating compounds (both synthetic and naturally occurring) into the sensitive child’s digestive tract. Toxins are also accumulating through excessive vaccinations (with their harmful preservatives), smog-laden air, treated water and plastics exposure.
Removing compounds fuelling inflammation from the diet is an essential element of reducing the over-activation of the immune response leading to the hyper-reactivity and inflammation. A common, and regularly ingested, irritant to the digestive tract is gluten, which is exceptionally high in modern Australian wheat. Casein, the protein from dairy, is also identified as a major irritant. Often, the first diet parents of autistic children will move to is GFCF (gluten free and casein free).
Interestingly, many children are “milk-o-holics” (to quote one of my GP mates). This is because the irritating, poorly digested compounds in dairy and wheat can set up an opioid-like response in the brain, creating true addiction, but also mood changes, aggression, poor eye contact, anxiety and inattention. A good step forward is to water down the milk (50–50) for a few weeks before removing it entirely, and seek more advice on how to replace these dietary staples.
In addition to removing foods to which the child has intolerance or allergies, it’s also advisable to remove refined sugars, trans fats from hydrogenated vegetable oils, artificial sweeteners, MSG, artificial food colourings, flavourings and preservatives. In short, eliminate most processed foods, as they set up hyper-reactivity in the nervous system, interfering with automatic actions that non-sensitive people can take for granted.
This reduction in irritants in the gut allows for healing (often supported with gut-healing foods) and reduces the amount of large compounds being absorbed into the blood, triggering immune reactions as a consequence of leaky gut syndrome. The supplementation of probiotic foods and capsules is also a very important element of gut healing and digestive balance. One case of severe autism treated with a specific antibiotic and probiotic therapy was the subject of a recent SBS documentary, illustrating just how powerfully gut flora can affect neurological function.
There is a range of diets shown to be effective with autism spectrum disorders, including the specific carbohydrate or GAPS diet, low-oxalate diet, body ecology diet, FODMAPS diet, paleo diet, Feingold/FAILSAFE diet and other food sensitivity elimination and rotation diets. Each child needs to be considered individually, as one size does not suit all.
Likewise, nutritional supplementation protocols must be individually prescribed. For example, when one child may respond remarkably to vitamin B12, activated B6 and folate, another may not be affected at all. There are many nutrients that may be deficient, impeding healthy functioning, which when supplemented can cause a profound shift in autistic behaviours.
Children are more vulnerable than adults to toxicity because their detoxification systems are not fully developed and because they have a higher exposure to toxins per kilo of their body weight. Some of the sensitive children can be considered the “canaries of the coalmine”, detecting poisons and unliveable conditions before anyone else. It seriously is time to make some drastic changes.
Sally Mathrick is a naturopath who runs Sparkle Wellness & Detox courses and retreats. See sparklewell.com.au for more details.