In the 1980’s the incidence of autism was 1 in 10,000. When I was in residency at Loma Linda University Medical Center in the early 1990’s, I never saw a child with autism. Two years later I saw my first child with a diagnosis of autism. Following what I learned from my teacher, Dr. Frymann, I applied osteopathic manual medicine principles, helped the parents with some dietary suggestions and natural medicines and hoped. Miraculously the child improved.

Presently the incidence of autism is about 1 in 45. Before 1960, the rare cases of autism were apparent early, usually before 6 months. These days, most cases are regressive autism, where development appears to be progressing normally until around 12-24 months. Signs can be blank stares, loss of eye contact and loss of speech.  Persistent regression is never a part of normal childhood development and should be investigated promptly.  The question has been asked, are genetics causing this epidemic? Although genes may create a susceptibility, they don’t create epidemics and rapid changes in a population. Recent literature suggests that the causes of the frightening rise in autism is multifactorial and the ever increasing number of environmental toxins and chemicals are implicated. Genetic variation can increase vulnerability to environmental toxins which can change gene expression by damaging DNA.

The good news is that we are beginning to understand the science of epigenetics which means “above genetics”. This means we can influence our genes in a positive way through a healthy whole foods diet and life style choices. Epigenetic factors influence development from conception and throughout life. Early intervention for these children is crucial. Supporting their metabolic pathways where glitches have occurred can help improve behavior and functioning.

No two children on the autistic spectrum have the same symptoms. It’s important that the parents and physicians work as a detective team to track when symptoms began, using a timeline approach.  Note which areas the majority of symptoms are in to find the best treatments.  Areas to investigate are gastrointestinal disturbances, microbiome imbalances, allergies, food sensitivities, mitochondrial issues, nutritional imbalances, hormonal imbalances, and infections: viral, bacterial, fungal (candida), parasites.   A biomedical workup can include testing for food allergies, intestinal flora imbalance, urine organic acid testing, genetic screening and other functional labs.  Core foundational issues such as a healthy whole foods diet, neurologic integration and treatment of birth trauma must be addressed.  Osteopathic manipulation, including working with the cranial sacral system can improve blood flow to the brain as well as support the free flow of the cerebrospinal fluid. This fluid which protects and “housecleans” the brain as well as carries many messenger molecules, hormones, and neurotransmitters. The recent discovery of the role of the glymphatics in brain health adds to our understanding of why osteopathic treatment is so valuable.  Helping these children reach their potential requires an integrative approach. We can help parents find solutions for their special children.

Prevention is key for protecting the health of future children. By improving their health before pregnancy and reducing toxic exposures, parents have the best chance of having a healthy child.

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