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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.