Saturday, November 12, 2011

Bound in a Soft-Gel: The Facts Behind Autism and Omega-3 Supplements

"I could be bound in a nutshell, and count myself king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams." You can't help but wonder whether Shakespeare knew anything of autism when he wrote this line, or how his young son Hamnet met his demise.

We live in a relatively enlightened age now, but for the less informed ones amongst us, the autistic spectrum is just another name for a dungeon of ignorance from which there is no escape. The word spectrum means a lot here, because it marks the fluidity of the disease and reminds us so-called "neurotypicals" how little we know about it. (Autism actually comprises three different things - autistic spectrum, Asperger's, and a third catch-all condition whenever the textbooks are silent.)

The loss of language through brain trauma is debilitating in itself, but when the faculty is perceived to have never quite developed according to our standards, the human toll is catastrophic, not only to the lives of those afflicted, but their parents as well. This is not to say that autistic children are incapable of communication, or indeed, that they haven't established a separate and mutually unintelligible system of thought. We simply don't know.

For instance, one of the biggest challenges in child development is the construction of a "theory of mind", which is the way a person distinguishes the self from the other. Its imperceptibility means most of us take it for granted; but in the autistic child's case, it might happen, it might not, and the parent might never find out.

In the absence of standard pharmaceutical treatments, frustrated parents are trying everything that comes their way. The vast majority of complementary medicine have yet to demonstrate statistically significant results in clinical trials. However, this is not a verdict against experimenting with them as such, because the scope of potential measures is so wide as to swamp researchers in the field.

Take, for instance, omega-3 fatty acid supplements, more commonly known as fish oils and long championed as an antidote against cardiovascular diseases. Over a hundred small-scale studies have been conducted in conjunction with its benefits in language development amongst autistic children, for two simple reasons. An active form of omega-3, DHA, is present in the human brain, and its deficiency has been associated with a wide variety of neural disorders. There is also anecdotal reports from parents, who perceive an improvement in lexicon and awareness when their autistic children have been put on a long-term regime of omega-3 supplements.

Granted, these results are far from conclusive, and researchers are proceeding at a snail's pace. (Ethics committees are reluctant to tamper with a child's neurological development at such a tender age through clinical trials - heads may roll unless they have strong circumstantial evidence.) So in the meantime, let's stick to proven dietary supplements and hope for the best. For a treatment that comes with absolutely no risk, it can make quite a difference.

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