The words autism and pervasive developmental disorders have historically been controversial and today, are more so than ever. 46 years after the publication of Dr. Bernard Rimland’s ground-breaking book, Infantile Autism (which dispelled the myth that autism was a psychiatric disorder stemming from poor maternal nurturing and clearly proved that it is instead a neuro-physiological disorder) there still exist a frighteningly large number of so-called experts who maintain (ignoring the substantial and growing body of proof to the contrary) that autism is a mental, as opposed to a physical, disease.
The fact is, however, that there is a great deal of evidence that autism spectrum disorders are the result of physical illness that has led to abnormal development of the infant central nervous system. There are many articles now in the scientific literature showing consistent findings of abnormal immune system activity, like chronic inflammatory markers and abnormal gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms and sometimes actual pathology. In fact, based upon our current body of knowledge, autism should really be classified as an immunological disease as more and more eminent researchers world-wide are concluding.
As if autism itself weren’t a controversial enough topic, the idea that diet might play a role in the pathology and progression of the disease elicits even more heated argument The benefits of the so-called “autism diet,” the casein and gluten free diet, have long been debated. On the other hand, according to the data kept by the Autism Research Institute in San Diego California, the vast majority of parents surveyed report clear benefit from improving the quality of their children’s diets, including GFCF.
The simple fact is that we are what we eat. Food provides our bodies with the fuel to run, with the nutrients we need to maintain proper function of our bodily systems, and determines the types of microorganisms we contain. We have – in our digestive systems, on our skin, eyelashes, etc. – hundreds of billions of microscopic organisms. In fact, they outnumber our cells by a factor of 10 to 1! Without them, human life would cease to exist. Nourishing our “old friends,” as they are now called in the medical literature, is as crucial to our good health as nourishing our own cells.
No matter what the cause of this autism epidemic turns out to be (yet another controversial topic), the very fact that more often than not, the children affected have abnormal immune and digestive functioning leads to the common sense conclusion that food might make a difference in health. A diet based on McDonald’s French fries, crisps and sugar-laden sweets (versus a diet based in wholesome and nutrient-rich healthful food) is not likely to promote healing. We all know that food can lead to diabetes. We know that food is linked to cancers, cardiovascular diseases, digestive disorders, obesity, allergies and asthma, and so on. Is autism really so far fetched? Not at all.
The idea that damage to the early developing gut flora – the yeasts, bacteria and other microorganisms with whom we co-exist and which are essential for life – may have played a large and crucial part in today’s autism epidemic is gaining momentum very rapidly. Several studies have now been published which clearly demonstrate that children on the spectrum have abnormal gut bacteria. In 2005, an article was published in the Journal of Medical Microbiology (“Differences between the gut microflora of children with autistic spectrum disorders and that of healthy children,” Drs. Parracho, Bingham, Gibson and McCartney) which found that, “The faecal flora of ASD patients contained a higher incidence of the Clostridium histolyticum group of bacteria than that of healthy children….Members of the C.histolyticum group are recognized toxin-producers and may contribute towards gut dysfunction, with their metabolic products also exerting systemic effects.” Confirmation of these findings came in 2010, when Dr. Jeremy Nicholson and colleagues published a study in the Journal of Proteome Research, entitled, “Urinary metabolic phenotyping differentiates children with autism from their unaffected siblings and age-matched controls.” The researchers found abnormal metabolites in the urines of children with autism which could only come from abnormal gut bacteria.
As hard as it may be for people to believe or understand, abnormalities of the gut bacteria are now being linked to all kinds of inflammatory illnesses including multiple sclerosis, inflammatory bowel diseases, heart disease and even obesity. A recent article (“Reconstituting the Depleted Biome to Prevent Immune Disorders”) by Dr. William Parker, of Duke University, states, “The light of evolution points toward reconstitution of the biome as the only reasonable therapy for a wide range of immune-associated disorders, including allergy, autoimmunity and perhaps autism.” That is, our current lifestyles – including the food we eat (which is all too often highly processed, filled with chemicals, of little or no nutrient value other than calories, etc.) – has lead to a change in gut flora which is now causing a cascade of chronic, inflammatory diseases like autistic spectrum disorders.
As of today, the Specific Carbohydrate Diet is now the number one diet – and the 2nd most effective treatment overall – according to parents’ reports in ARI’s database. Removing foods that feed bacterial overgrowth is not a new concept in medicine, and is actually fairly well-documented in the medical literature. The improvements seen in most children when put onto a healthy diet, and when being treated for abnormal gut flora, can be dramatic and sometimes almost miraculous. Normalizing gut flora helps normalize the immune system. And more often than not (in fact, most of the time), normalizing the immune system, improving digestion and gut function, leads to dramatic improvements in autistic symptoms.