Autism: A Whole-Child Naturopathic Approach
by Rahim Habib ND, Naturopathic Doctor
Autism can manifest with a range of expressions…it could be someone who has a very high IQ, who is focused in their intent, though being socially awkward with less skill in effectively communicating with others (think of Dustin Hoffman in the movie Rainman); or, it could be someone who needs extensive care, having significant difficulty communicating with an inability to speak, or to comprehend regular language. This broad range of symptoms necessitated the notion of autistic symptoms fitting on a wide ‘spectrum,’ so people with the disorder are said to have an Autistic Spectrum Disorder, or ASD. Ultimately, there is an inherent difficulty in communicating and in behaviour, which means that these people often either stand out in our society, or are part of the faded background of society. The diagnosis of ASD is increasing, with estimates of being found in 1 in 150 Canadian children, and 1 in 75 boys, since it is about 4 times more likely to affect boys.
Since it is classified as a neurodevelopmental disorder, early diagnosis and intervention is critical to maximize a child with Autism’s ability to speak, learn, and function. It is often diagnosed by 3-5 years of age, though signs of ASD are often apparent by 1-2 years of age. Some of the early signs are listed below.
- large gain in head circumference between birth and 12 months of age
- child does not babble or coo by 12 months of age
- child does not gesture, such as point or wave, by 12 months
- child does not say single words by 16 months
- child does not say two-word phrases on his or her own (rather than just repeating what someone else says) by 24 months
- child has lost any language or social skills (at any age)
- lack of eye-contact or response when called by parents or care-givers
Common ways to help these children include applied behaviour analysis (ABA), speech and occupational therapy, psychotherapeutic medications, and special education. As a naturopathic doctor, I have found and implemented many other important ways to help these children. I recommend a ‘whole-child’ based approach, rather than just a neuro-developmental approach, additionally looking at many aspects of function of Autistic children, besides just the brain. A whole-child naturopathic approach incorporates addressing the digestive and immune systems, nutrition, toxicity, self-regulatory and structural issues and encouraging educational programs that improve communication, effective behaviour, emotional interaction and sensory balancing.
Poor Digestion in People with Autism
Research has shown that at least 40%, and up to 75% of autistic children tested have a very porous, or hyper-permeable, intestinal lining. This means that their intestinal boundary is less guarded, letting many substances into the body. This has been shown to trigger food intolerance reactions, and to possibly affect their immune system and other parts of their body. Some research has also shown that a subset of people with Autism make auto-antibodies against their brain tissue. Clearly, there is also a role of the immune system in some people with Autism. An area that is also very important is the level of microbial balance in the digestive tract. Keep in mind that there are over ten times more microbial cells/organisms that live in the intestine, compared to the number of the human body’s own cells! This means that our digestive microbial health has a huge potential influence on the rest of our body, particularly the immune system. As an example of the role of digestion in people with Autism, I saw a family with a child of two years of age who was diagnosed with Autism. He could not keep still, he was extremely distracted and very restless. After making dietary changes following blood tests to determine reactions to food, the parents told me that when he avoided the problem foods, their son was much more focused and alert, however, when he ate the offending foods, his difficult behaviour would act up again. In this same patient, we also tested and found parasites in his stool sample; after ridding the intestinal parasite, he showed even more improvement.
Nutritional Deficiencies Are Common in Autism
A 2010 study published in the European Journal of Pediatrics found 6 significant nutritional deficiencies in a group of Autistic children, compared to non-Autistic children. These deficiencies included zinc, calcium, vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin C, vitamin B6, and folic acid. Each of these has a role in brain health. For example, zinc is important for nerve cell replication, and helps promote connections amongst nerve cells.
Vitamin A may reconnect the retinoid receptors critical for vision, sensory perception, language processing and attention, learning and memory. Vitamin A also helps heal a damaged intestinal membrane, and has immune supportive effects at the right dose.
Once vitamin D is produced and then activated in the body, it has potent neuro-developmental effects. It is also interesting to note that there are a large number of vitamin D receptors on brain cells and immune cells. Some research has identified low vitamin D levels in the pregnant mother as a risk factor for infantile autism in the newborn. In my experience, many, many people are vitamin D deficient. In another case of childhood Autism I am treating, we found he had profound deficiency of vitamin D, but also vitamin C deficiency, and a few food intolerance reactions. After supplementing these vitamins, changing his diet, and giving some vitamin B12 injections, his ability to have calmer, focused behaviour, and to maintain visual gaze dramatically improved within 6 months, not to mention fewer seizures. There is no doubt that nutrition has an important role to play in helping children or even adults with Autism.
Toxins and Autism
Some research supports the role of toxicity with the chances of developing Autism. Naturally, if something is neurotoxic, such as lead, mercury or acetaminophen/paracetamol metabolites, it is obvious that it is a likely suspect for causing neurological problems. Keep in mind that the effect of the toxin may also depend on when or to what extent the pregnant mother or young child was exposed. For example, mothers with higher levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) found in their blood at the time of birth of their child, bore children with smaller thymus glands (an important gland for maturing the newborn immune system). Just as there are common developmental milestones for the new baby, subtle immune-related milestones are affected by toxins. This has created a new branch of research known as neuro-developmental immuno-toxicity (say that five times in a row!). Some toxins increase the chances of mutations that develop in the fetus, which may lead to Autism; these include cadmium, mercury, nickel, vinyl chloride, and trichloroethylene. 2015 research published in the journal Environmental Research found that particular chemical fragrances (typically found in perfumes, detergents, or other personal care products) can reduce neurological signals associated with changes in behavior, especially social interactions. Needless to say, toxins affect all of us, the question is to what extent. This is why toxicity testing is part of my naturopathic assessment in all patients, including children with learning and developmental concerns. Developing a detoxification program is often part of the treatment of people with Autism and is part of a prevention program pre-conception.
Self-Regulation and Structural Balance in Autism
The ability of each person to self-regulate is fundamental to our existence. If we are cold, we have automatic mechanisms to shiver and raise the hairs on our skin to promote insulation, or to alter our behaviour and seek shelter or warmth. In children with Autism, their ability to sense the world is in some examples very heightened (such as being hypersensitive to noises, or touch), and in others, not very sensitive (such as temperature, and social nuances). The ability to sense the world is fundamental, and this is an area that needs support and balancing. Some children with Autism have difficulty handling the slightest touch, and others can’t get enough and often bump into everything with glee; physical therapies, massage, horseback riding, may be helpful in certain cases. I have also found homeopathy to be very helpful in encouraging self-regulation overall.
From a structural perspective, latent birth traumas, variations in brain structural development in-utero, and other causes of cranial bone restrictions can often play a role in how well someone with Autism functions. Craniosacral, osteopathic, and visceral manipulations can be very helpful for these children, with marked improvements in behaviour.
Learning, Communication, Emotions, and Behaviour in Autism
There are many and increasing forms of interventions that go beyond what is commonly available in special education classes. It may be a matter of parents learning about what approaches are available, and trying ones that feel right. Some of these interventions include the following: Floortime, Son-Rise, Miller Method, The Extra Lesson, Social Stories, Sign Language, Sensory Integration Therapies, NeuroDevelopment and Learning Efficiency, Vision Therapy, Auditory Therapy, etc. Overall, encouraging routines and rhythm in the day is also very helpful, as just the known expectation of what is to come can be calming.
Observing the whole child, rather than just the obvious cognitive and behavioural manifestations, can let the child show the parents and practitioners the way to best help them. In addition to the common approaches to help these children, additional nutritional and toxicity testing and interventions, and an examination of structure in relation to bodily function, with effective learning strategies, many people faced with Autism can have additional benefits, and lead fuller lives.
Rahim is a registered naturopathic doctor who has a general family practice, with a special interest in helping patients comprehensively detoxify their bodies for preventative and therapeutic benefit. He also has a special interest in children’s learning and behavioural health, and chronic conditions in adults. He is the director of the Four Seasons Naturopathic Clinic for Detoxification and Healing and can be reached at 905-597-7201 or www.FamilyNaturopath.ca.
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