Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Four Corners: The Autism Enigma

Did anyone else watch The Autism Enigma last night on Four Corners?

If not, and you are in Australia you can catch it again tonight (late) or later in the week on ABC News 24.  Or, of course on Iview.  I think it screened in the US last year.

In brief, it was about some new science coming out on what might cause Autism and what might be able to help with the symptoms.  The theory being expounded was that regressive Autism's development has to do with a imbalance of bacteria in the gut - based on the discovery that Autistic children having a very different gut bacteria profile to normal children.  There is a subset of autism which is regressive, ie. the child develops normally and then regresses into Autism. They think that many of these children may have been exposed to something (one environ they suggested was high doses of antibiotics) at a particular point in their first three years of life which throws the balance of good and bad bacteria in the gut.  The bad bacteria (can't remember the name) survives all but the most extreme antibiotics (in fact even with antibiotics designed to kill superbugs it only goes dormant and then reestablishes itself). The bad bacteria produces neurotoxins which they think is why it may cause issues in the brain.

They also looked at the theory that diet is playing a role as the rate of autism is nearly four times the rest of the populace in new immigrant communities.

In terms of help for Autism there was a suggestion that if the gut could be recolonised with good bacteria improvement would be seen in these children.  Essentially, the theory came out of a study done in the mid 90s of one child, which was then extended to a larger group.  At age 4 the little boy was put on a two month course of the high potency antibiotics, during which time his normal behaviour resurfaced, he learnt to speak and was potty trained.  When the antibiotics were ceased he regressed back to the closed world of a severely autistic child.  The trouble is, as I mentioned above, the bad bacteria killed off lay spores which re-establish themselves at the cessation of the antibiotic course. 

A group of Canadian scientist have taken the mid 1990s study as a launching point and what they are looking at is how to re-establish the good bacteria as the dominants.  But what interested me was the comments on the role of diet.  Essentially, the suggestion was that this 'bad bacteria' thrives on a high carbohydrate and dairy diet; precisely the foods that autistic children tend to crave and what constitutes the current western diet (perhaps some explanation for the rates in immigrant communities where there has been less time to adjust to this diet).  They noted that many parents of autistic children have noted huge improvements in behaviour when children are given altered diets and courses of probiotics.  (Also food additive E280 was noted as another good 'feeder' of the bad bacteria.)

What struck me was that though this documentary is about autism in particular, surely the same bad bacteria live in the guts of everyone else.  Certainly, they would be in smaller quantities and perhaps more 'outnumbered' but surely if they do produce neurotoxins those same toxins would be affecting both our brains and our children's brain.  Another confirmation for me that there really is something in the modern western diet that is hurting our kids, beyond the self-evident obesity issues. 

I started to think about our own family and how Ginger's behaviour is often impacted by what she has eaten the previous day.  I am no way, shape or form indicating that her behaviour is anything we can't handle, but she is definitely much more grumpy and 'acts out' when she has had poor food choices the day before. 

Furthermore, carbohydrates and dairy are her favourite foods.  She barely touches meat, and vegetables are negotiated.  I really think we need to make further changes in our diet towards wholefoods.  As my mum said, if there are no carbs on offer she will eventually eat the vegetables!  We have come some way but there is certainly room for improvement.  As the mother of the 4 year old who was in that groundbreaking study (her son is now 19) commented "the gut you establish in the first 3 years of life is what you will die with".  Powerful stuff.

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