Tuesday, April 26, 2011

What Is Really Behind the Austism Epidemic?

I recently attended a lecture by Dr. Kate McFadden, M.D., of the Division of Neuropathology at the University of Pittsburgh regarding her thoughts on Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). This article was inspired by her talk.

In her talk, she said that there was very little evidence of any "non-inherited factors" in people with autism. This is a bit challenging for me because so much has been made for so long on all kinds of environmental factors potentially playing significant roles in the number of children being diagnosed with autism.

And yet I cannot cite one credible scientific study that substantially supports the hypothesis of environmental factors in the prevalence of autism or autistic children. Honestly, I don't know what to think. Based on the research that she shared at the lecture, I feel like I really don't know anything at all. So this article is my attempt to work out some of the connections that might make some more sense of the phenomenon of autism as it is presenting itself in our children.

Dr. McFadden pointed to stories of "Troll Babies" dating from the 14th century where people believed that their own children were taken by trolls and replaced with "troll children" who were identical in appearance to the original child yet lacked the empathy of typical children and sometimes had "unusual wisdom." The fuller description of the literature she gave in her talk leads me to think that autism has been around for a very long time. The fact that there is a 90% concordance of autism in identical twins and only a 10% concordance in fraternal twins would lead me to believe that there is a strong genetic component in the autism phenomenon as well.

Much has been made of the relationship between vaccines and autism. The original study linking MMR vaccines and autism has been removed from Lancet's website. The author has had his license revoked and has been disciplined. This pathological pathway has been studied extensively and rigorously without significant findings in favor of the link between vaccines and autism.

She presented a very strong case for prenatal causes of autism. The latest brain scan evidence indicates that people on the autism spectrum process information in the neo-cortex in markedly different ways from control subjects. The evidence is mounting that there are significant structural differences in the structure and density of the axons and neurons in the neo-cortex (the wrinkly outside part of the brain). The brain "lights up" differently in people with ASD versus age-matched control subjects in functional MRI scans.

In Dr. McFadden's work, she has been focusing on axonal formation. Axons are the main branches of the neuron that connect to other neurons though other processes or extensions which include the dendrites, the dendrite spines and the synapses on those spines. Based on the evidence at hand at this moment, she believes that one of the key factors related to the differences in brain development and structure in people with autism is to be found in the cell adhesion molecules (CAMs) that play all kinds of roles in the formation of axons, which in many ways determines which parts of the brain are connected to each other and how well they communicate with each other.

One of the most powerful points (to me) in Dr. McFadden's presentation was the fact that CAMs are not only critical in the development of the brain, but also in the development of the gut (which in a way has its own kind of brain) and the immune system as well. These are the three main areas that are consistently found to be problematic in people with autism, and so I find it to be compelling evidence that CAMs are very likely involved in how autism tends to present itself.

In this article I do not have the space to cover all of the supporting evidence that Dr. McFadden presented in her talk. For example, she suggested that if there is an actual increase in the frequency of ASD cases, it could be related to genetic abnormalities that tend to increase as people tend to have children later in life. These same kinds of age-related effects have been associated with Down Syndrome and Fragile X Syndrome, and yet I have not heard of any kind of increase in these two populations because people are having children in the U.S. at later and later ages. I'm sure more demographic research needs to be conducted to determine if there are any demographic factors related to the increase of diseases that have a strong genetic basis.

The questions that are still left unanswered for me after her talk include some of the following:

1. Can we explain the similarities in brain structure and function in people with ASD mostly through biochemical mechanisms?
2. How could biochemical processes account for the generally accepted functional strengths and weaknesses of people with ASD?
3. In ASD are there interaction effects between the expression of genetic factors and biochemical factors that may not even have a discernible causal connections? In other words, could relatively independent factors within someone's genetic makeup happen to coincide with each other without having the same root causes?)
4. Might it be the case that there is some other, overriding organizational factor or group of factors (beyond environment, beyond genetics, beyond population demographics, beyond biochemistry) that might account for the consistency of the patterns of form and function in the brains of people with ASD? (I'm suggesting that perhaps there is something going on at more fundamental levels of the cosmos like collective human consciousness and the quantum plenum, for example.)
5. Is there some other kind of larger-scale environmental factor at work, meaning that a more macroscopic global increase in various types and combinations of various toxins and energetic frequencies could be interacting with human genetics to create these kinds of effects? (I don't know how this would be tested scientifically.)
6. Is autism possibly some kind of unconscious response or feedback from and for the human species to help us wake up? (This one doesn't lend itself to scientific research either.)
Have we created such a complex and challenging situation because we have unconsciously made ourselves into complex people with lots of challenges? (Again, I admit, not a very scientific question.)

Dr. McFadden, in her talk made it very clear that there is a lot we don't know about ASD. I'm thinking we're probably about at 99.999% unknowing right now. She believes the search for some kind of silver bullet cure (e.g., "let's stop doing 'X' and that will make it go away") is very tempting yet will probably not be fruitful.

There's very little that I feel confident about when I think about ASD because I constantly find my assumptions and beliefs to be upended by my ongoing education and experiences. Despite this intellectual no man's land of not knowing that I repeatedly find myself in, there is something that deepens as I continue on my journey:

I believe that there are good reasons for the prevalence of autism in our children. I don't know what they are. I do believe that our children with autism are meant to help us wake up to the truth. To what truth are we being awakened? I believe we are being called to awaken to the truth that all people are loveable, including ourselves. The most challenging people in our lives (and not necessarily only those with ASD!) are in our lives to help us access deeper and more profound levels of love and acceptance, not only of others, but of ourselves. To think that autism is something to fight or eradicate is probably not a fruitful perspective. Wars of any kind always lead to suffering.

I believe we are being called to live in greater acceptance of what is the case right now. I also believe that as we live from a state of love in the present moment, we will discover the many gifts that lie hidden within all of the children and adults who live with Autism Spectrum Disorder. I believe that people with ASD in many different ways are calling us to become different people, better people. They are consciously and unconsciously calling us to transformation as individuals and as a species.

So if we stop polluting the earth, will autism go away? Probably not. And yet, I believe that when we live from a place of deep love and acceptance of everyone and everything that is, we can make ASD disappear. How? In the fullness of acceptance, there is love. And when we live from love, everything and everyone is loveable. Love is not interested in fighting diseases and diagnoses. Love knows that its purposes will be fulfilled.

Perhaps our children are the means for the salvation of the world. We tend to think that our children will save us with their great intellects. Perhaps our children are really calling us to greater love. In that calling, we may find our salvation in the deeper and fuller acceptance of one another as human beings. For more information on autism and autistic children please visit http://www.autistic-children.net/

Bill Frase is a personal coach and writer who lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with his wife and son. For more information, check out his blog at http://spiritualpowerforall.blogspot.com/ or follow him on Twitter-BillFrase. The practical implications of spirituality are a really big deal too.

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