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The Miracle Moment: How to help an autistic child step into the world

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New technology allows us to visualize the differences between autistic and non-autistic nervous system development, enabling us to better understand the world autistic children experience.

In his book Into Thin Air, journalist Jon Krakauer describes how in 1996 he and fellow Mount Everest climbers became trapped inside one of the deadliest spring blizzards in recent memory. As darkness fell, several climbers became disoriented in the blowing snow. Finding Camp IV became hopeless. As far as they knew, the warmth of their tents could be miles away. It was only because of a momentary clearing of the storm at around midnight that the small group could see Camp IV, mere meters away.

I think of this scene often when I listen to parents of autistic children. For them, it can feel as though their child is out there somewhere lost in a blizzard of their own sensory experience, perhaps miles away, or maybe much closer. Maybe so close they are only steps away from crossing over into the world of connection.

This miracle moment sometimes happens, and it is a scene parents never forget. This 20/20 report shows how four letters typed on a keyboard set little Carly and her family upon a whole new journey of togetherness and hope.

You’ve probably heard similar stories of autistic children breaking out of isolation and stepping into a world of meaningful communication (often with the aid of a computer keyboard). How do these miracles happen and what can parents do to experience the same kind of awakening connection with their own autistic child?

Autism is a complicated spectrum of systemic, neurologic dysfunction that affects each child differently. As every child is unique, no two stories are the same. What we do know is that those children who receive intensive therapy and positive interaction seem to stand the best chance. What’s not often discussed, however, is the crucial role of diet.

Over more than a decade of nutrition research, I’ve grown convinced that specific dietary regimens may open unexplored avenues of hope for parents with autistic children.

To better understand why I am so hopeful, let’s talk for a minute about what autism looks like in the developing brain.

Brain Growth Appears Asymmetrical in Autism

Recent research is telling us that the brain of an autistic child is different in at least two visible ways. First, there are differences in white matter distribution. White matter is the part of the brain that carries information from one nerve cell to the next, very much like fiber optic cable between computer hubs.

This is how Cure Autism Now’s Science Director, Sophia Colamarino summarizes Dr Martha Herbert’s research:

Examining the white matter enlargement in greater detail, Dr. Herbert discovered that not all white matter is expanded to the same degree. The increase is greatest in the white matter that transmits information between brain regions that are close to each other and on the same side of the brain. In contrast to these local projections, the volume of long-distance white matter projections (which transmit information between regions far from each other or those on opposite sides of the brain) remains relatively unchanged. Even more intriguingly, the increase in locally-projecting white matter is not seen equally throughout the brain. The volume change is biggest in the front of the brain, which is the part of the brain most interconnected with all other brain regions. This area is responsible for integrating information from many other brain regions and is where the most abstract (“higher-order”) brain functioning is believed to take place. This white matter area also develops later than many others and doesn’t reach maturity until the second year of life, if not later. In the future, this may provide scientists with an important time window for targeting therapies that would protect against the abnormal white matter development.

In my estimation, these extra tracts could be an underlying reason for the clumsiness of motion as well as the sensory overload that autistic children experience. The millions of extraneous connections may simply overwhelm the processing ability of the child’s grey matter.

Yellow regions (left) show the enlarged white matter found in autism patients. Red regions (right) show the gray matter which is relatively smaller in autism patients. (Courtesy of the Center for Morphometric Analysis, MGH-Harvard)

Another key difference was discovered following the advent of a new brain scan technology called diffusion tensor imaging. Researchers found that when you zoom in to study the connectivity tracts within the white matter that the brains of autistic children lack the typical symmetry seen in non-autistic children.

Twenty years ago, these findings would have been cause for despair: The connections in the brain have already set, the thinking would go, so how much good can therapy really do?

But that was twenty years ago. Now we know that very little in the brain is “set” and permanent; the plasticity of the brain—the brain’s dynamic ability to grow and reform itself in response to environmental cues—continues well into our golden years. This is why stimulating the minds of nursing home residents with challenging, interactive therapies is now seen as essential to their well-being.

 

Diffusion Tensor Imaging Shows Increasingly Robust Connectivity Across Lifespan. While brain cell number typically drops as we age, the organization of the brain—in the form of meaningful connections—increases. The different colors represent different “information highways” in the brain: Superior longitudinal fasciculus (orange), corticospinal tract (green), and inferior longitudinal fasciculus (purple). There are dozens more. (Images from healthy subjects)

Our brains, it seems, are always changing. This is especially true for children—autistic and non-autistic. A child’s mind can be said to be reaching out into their environment for instructions on how it should grow over the coming months and years. Interactive therapy works because it tells the growing brain to make the connections that facilitate the mastery of new skills, including basic social skill like eye contact.

This is where diet comes in. Brain tissue isn’t made from thin air. The body needs a specific complex of fats, cholesterol, proteins, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. If a diet provides natural versions of these substances, the brain will use these to build tissue, just as human brains have done for thousands of generations. In a diet rich in processed foods, like vegetable oils, hydrolyzed proteins, improperly balanced antioxidant formulations and synthetic vitamins, the body will just have to make due. Try as it might, a suboptimal diet makes it difficult, if not impossible, for the nervous system tissue to grow according to plan.

Leading educators of the autism community, such as Jenny McCarthy and Julie Matthews have already put the spotlight on diet. In spite of their good work, much of the conversation remains focused on numerous potential food allergens, like casein and gluten and long lists of additives like sulfates and MSG. The message I see parents receiving is that they need to conduct their own exhaustive investigation in attempt to discover which specific substances or combinations of substances might be affecting their child.

Great information, for sure. Still, unless they consult a holistic nutrition-oriented practitioner, parents sometimes don’t know where to begin.

Infant formula: A formula for autism?

Personally, I’d like to begin with getting rid of standard infant formula.

Though I could write a book on the reasons I feel baby formula is entirely ill-suited to the needs of a growing baby, I understand why so many young mothers depend on this stuff. I originally posted this information as part of this post you are reading, but realized the subject needs to be handled more thoroughly. This Tuseday, Sean Croxton and I will discuss the reasons I believe that formula promotes autism and why the association has been almost overlooked. Essential to our discussion is the knowledge that these ingredients are also found in so-called healthy foods on many shelves throughout the grocery store and can even make their way into mother’s milk.

Related posts:

Why the trans fat in formula doesn’t “count” for labeling purposes: http://drcate.com/canola-oil-the-blob-that-ate-butter-olive-oil/
How Canola and other vegetable oils ruin a healthy salad: http://drcate.com/salad-dressing-the-silent-killer/
How Canola and other vegetable oils contribute to intestinal inflammation and gluten intolerance: http://drcate.com/what-is-celiac-disease-a-recipe-for-recovery-beyond-gluten-free/

Live Discussion

Join me on Tuesday May 1 at 5 pm Pacific time on SeanCroxton’s live podcast where we will discuss how you can stack the odds against autism.

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About Author

Dr. Cate

With over two decades of clinical experience and expertise in genetic and biochemical research, Dr. Cate can help you to reverse metabolic disease and reshape your body.

  • Lauren

    Hi Dr Cate. I listened to you on Sean Croxton’s show. Fabulous! You talked about a study that showed that a day’s worth of formula had the equivalent amount of aluminum as a year’s worth of vaccinations. Could you give me the citation or authors, please? I want to spread the word! Thank you so much. Kind regards, Lauren from New Zealand

    • Now that we’ve moved and are settling in to our new house, I’ll be doing a post on infant formula’s autism risks and will be sure to include this. Thanks for reading!

      • Floyd Krenshaw

        I hope I missed something there. Drs curing some ailments of autism with diet?
        I guess we all could benefit from a good diet, but isn’t this less than good research?

  • Roxann Higuera

    I found Carly’s site. I thought you all might enjoy it: http://carlysvoice.com/home/

  • Thanks so much, Vicki. I hope you have access to bones from humanely treated, free range animals. We pay through the nose for those bones here, but we feel the extra money is worth it for all kinds of reasons.

    I think it’s just so wonderful that you continue to immerse your daughter in a learning environment where she can continue to be challenged. I’ve read a few of Temple Grandin’s books, and she never misses an opportunity to say something about the benefits novel experiences. All the best!

  • Vicki

    (cont’d)…your book is the one that gave me the confidence to pursue this diet without fear that all the fat and meat would lead to some horrible disease down the road. So thanks to you and Luke both.

    Blessings,
    Vicki

    • So nice to hear from you. Best of luck with your continued progress and if you listen to Sean’s podcast I hope you find it interesting and useful!

  • Vicki

    (cont’d) …and less repetitive. She doesn’t stand at the pantry craving carbohydrates like she used to. Her hair, which previously was quite thin, is even thicker! She’s in a special program at the local community college and when she does homework now (which I almost always have to help her with), I notice that now she sits quietly and focuses. These changes are amazing to me. After reading your book, I also read the GAPS Diet book. It added to my knowledge and understanding, but…

  • Vicki

    Hi Dr. Cate –
    I just wanted to thank you for the work that you do. I am the single mother of a mildly autistic, ADD, borderline IQ daughter who is now 20 years old. She will probably never be able to live without supervision. After reading “Deep Nutrition” and starting her on bone broth (which she loves and asks for!), cooking meat on the bone and sneaking fermented foods into her diet, she is actually showing some improvement. She has fewer tics, her conversation is more “normal” and less..

  • Mark

    Thanks for posting this, Dr. Cate. Any thoughts on the GAPS diet and the work of Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride?

    • Because Dr Campbell-McBride has a well-defined program I think it can be a good intro to an anti-inflammatory diet. For the long term, however, for instance after symptoms abate and without clear evidence for celiac disease or other food intolerances I would recommend branching out into a more varied, fun, and sustainable program.

  • Janknitz

    Any stats on bottle fed vs breast fed and autism? I would guess the family in the 20/20 video fed their TWIN daughters the same way.

    I know many parents of autistic children who breastfed. The moms were very health conscious and ate what they thought was a healthy diet of whole grains, low fat using mostly vegetable oils. But so did most people who had non-autistic children. Diet cannot explain it all. Sure wish it was that easy.

    • As an analgy, smoking affects everyone differently so that we can’t predict who will get lung cancer but we can tell people it increases their risk. I think the same applies to formula — but muddling the association is the fact that the ingredients in formula make their way into mom’s diet. Still, there are studies on an association: one example.
      If we start looking at all the interactions between nutrients and biology we find that diet may go much farther than most of us assume — even to the point it can CAUSE so-called random gene mutations associated with autism. I will be going into these issues with Sean on Tuseday’s LIVE radio show. Please call us if you can!

  • Janknitz

    Breastfeeding is ALWAYS better, but lest this become an opportunity for bashing mothers, remember that some of us had no choice (because of adoption or for medical reasons) but to use formula and we carry enough guilt over that already even when our bottle fed babies are perfectly healthy.

    • Thank you for pointing this out. We could reserve the bashing for the companies who cut every corner on their product for profit.

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