This week on The Dr. Oz Show, one of the topics was “What Causes Autism: The Debate,” which, of course, caught my interest enough to watch. For this show, half of the audience included parents of children diagnosed with autism, and the other half were parents who were concerned that their children may have autism but had not yet been diagnosed. His guests were a panel of six pediatricians who appeared to be there only in case they were needed to break a tie vote; pediatrician and pro-vaccine author Dr. Ari Brown; Dr. Bob Sears, who treats many children with autism; Irva Hertz-Picciotto, a Ph.D. in public health services who has studied environmental issues with autism; and Alison Singer, a parent of a child with autism who has worked for two major autism organizations. With the exception of Drs. Sears and Hertz-Picciotto and one dissident doctor sitting among the lab coat panel of six, Dr. Michael Gabriel, the deck seemed to be stacked in the pro-vaccine camp, who clearly outnumbered these experts. Since the first topic of potential causes was the role of vaccines in autism—a hotly debated topic—the pro-vaccine experts cited scientific studies that show there is no link between autism and vaccines. However, they failed to mention that most of these studies were funded by the pharmaceutical industry, the manufacturers of vaccines who stand to lose millions of dollars should their research show any other results. The pro-vaccine doctors described the dangers of diseases that immunizations prevent and the importance of “herd immunity,” making the majority of the community immune to disease to protect those who are not. The choice of the term “herd” is a rather unfortunate one, comparing children to cattle, but perhaps this blind following describes what is really happening. On the other side, Dr. Sears did not advocate forgoing immunizations; he simply suggested a safer schedule that spread out the vaccines so that children were not receiving as many at a time. Even Dr. Oz admitted that he had used this staggered schedule with his own children’s vaccinations.
The second possible cause of autism discussed on the show was environment, including diet, chemicals, medications, and even proximity of living near freeways. Dr. Hertz-Picciotto pointed out that the environmental causes are not just one source, but many, many causes—“a minefield,” as she described it. In addition, she clarified that environmental causes are defined as anything not genetic. I wish the camera had shown the reaction of the pro-vaccine doctors at that point since many who believe that vaccines are not the cause are strong proponents that autism is genetic, which is essentially a new way of blaming the parents. Similarly, the third issue dealt with the age of parents as a potential cause of autism: some studies have indicated the older the parents, the more likely the incidence of having children with autism. Considering how challenging dealing with autism is, maturity of parents is probably a blessing in disguise. When Alex was diagnosed with autism, I was in my early thirties and had gained some wisdom and patience I did not have in my twenties, both of which I needed to deal with the challenges we faced. Dr. Oz summarized the discussions of autism, saying that it is “a national crisis,” and he went on to compare children with autism to “canaries in the coal mine,” suggesting that children with autism reflect the problems of our world, such as pollution. He then stated, “We see it first in them [children with autism].” I totally agree with Dr. Oz on both points: autism IS a national crisis with 1 in 110 children being diagnosed, including 1 in 70 boys, where the incidence is much higher than girls, and these children are the canaries in the coal mine who have a vulnerability to something that affects their neurological systems. Certainly, the causes likely vary from child to child, but with Alex, we know from medical tests that he had mercury, lead, arsenic, and aluminum poisoning that had to be treated. His body clearly cannot detoxify itself properly, and the mercury and aluminum present in the childhood vaccinations he received were harmful to his developing brain and nervous system. Moreover, we know from food allergy tests that he has sensitivities to the food proteins glutens and caseins; therefore, placing him on a strict diet eliminating glutens and caseins has prevented him from having digestive problems that many children with autism face.
Although environment has played a major role in Alex’s autism, I think that genetics have played some part, as well. Studies have shown that mothers with autoimmune disorders often have children with autism. In a sense, we, too, are canaries in the mine, and I suspect that autism itself is an autoimmune condition in which the immune system, taxed by environmental stressors, attacks the digestive and nervous system. My autism mom friends have dealt with their own autoimmune issues from MS to endometriosis to allergies, and I was diagnosed with two autoimmune conditions of my own. When I was pregnant with Alex, my doctors discovered I have chronic ITP, or idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura, a blood disorder in which hormones cause my spleen to destroy healthy blood platelets, putting me at risk of bleeding. A few years later, I was diagnosed with the autoimmune condition chronic thyroiditis and had most of my thyroid surgically removed. Thankfully, neither of these conditions affects my daily life anymore, other than I keep an eye on my platelet count and have to take thyroid medication for the rest of my life to regulate my metabolism. Generally, Alex and I are both very healthy and rarely get sick; however, we probably are canaries in the mine whose bodies react to environmental toxins by attacking themselves. In the conclusion of the autism segment, Dr. Oz described autism as “a neurological disorder that robs a child of an emotional foundation.” In my opinion, Dr. Oz really misunderstands autism if he believes that. Other autism moms and I have been comparing notes on that statement and believe that our children not only possess an emotional foundation but actually have stronger emotions than typical people do. We feel that our children retract from overwhelming situations or overreact when they are placed in circumstances that jolt their sensitive nervous systems. I know that Alex frets over my health and gets upset if he sees me crying; he cares but doesn’t always know how to express his emotions because his own nerves are so jangled he doesn’t know what he’s feeling. While I don’t think Dr. Oz’s show solved the mysteries of autism, I hope and pray that greater awareness and a more concerted effort not only to find the cause but also the cure for autism will benefit thousands of children so that they and their families can enjoy life to the fullest. I look forward to that day with great anticipation and know for certain that God can bring that to pass.
“O Lord, You alone can heal me; You alone can save. My praises are for You alone!” Jeremiah 17:14