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The Rising Rate of Autism in Kids

Is there an autoimmune connection and can diet help?

In 1970, only 1 child in 10,000 was diagnosed with autism. Today, according to the Centers for Disease Control, the number is 1 in 59. Expansion of the diagnosis to autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in the DSM-5 might explain some of the difference in the number of children diagnosed with the disorder. But the widened criteria does not explain such an immense increase.

The cause or causes of autism spectrum disorder are still elusive. Currently, there are two camps in the autism world. One camp holds that the cause of autism is genetic. This group says that autism is a genetic condition, something like Down syndrome. However, despite decades of intensive research, no “autism gene” or combination of autism genes has yet been discovered. Nonetheless, this camp holds that autism is a condition that a child will have forever. It can be managed but it cannot be cured.

The second camp argues that the causes of autism are mainly environmental, though some genetic factors may play a role. They believe that environmental triggers like pesticides, certain foods, allergens, vaccines, and even stress can trigger an immune reaction in the child’s body which impacts the brain and can cause symptoms of autism.

The environmental cause camp has a diverse constituency. It includes functional medicine doctors like Mark Hymen, MD and Amy Meyers, MD. Functional medicine physicians believe autism is an autoimmune condition. They claim success in treating autism spectrum disorder by removing gluten, sugar, dairy, eggs and other potentially irritating substances from the child’s diet in order to heal the child's gut. They use vitamin and mineral supplements like zinc and magnesium to correct a child's nutritional deficiencies.

The environmental camp extends to researchers who seek a connection between pesticides and autism. Recently research published in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that maternal exposure to the pesticide DDT is associated with autism in her infant. The study does not prove a causal relationship but only a correlation between DDT-exposure and autism.

A recent book in the camp of environmental causes for autism is J. B. Handley’s controversial How to End the Autism Epidemic. In 2004, Handley’s son was diagnosed with severe autism at The University of California San Francisco Medical Center. He and his wife Lisa were told that their son would probably be institutionalized. When the Handleys asked if making changes in their son's diet would help, their doctor, a world famous autism expert, replied that this was merely a placebo for parents.

Wanting to try every alternative for their son, the Handleys found Bay Area physician Dr. Lynne Mielke. The boy's symptoms improved significantly with dietary interventions. Seeing such improvement, Handley decided to research the connection between vaccines, autoimmune conditions, and autism.

Although the theory that vaccines cause autism has been firmly denied by the CDC and other health organizations, Handley’s book makes two particularly incisive points that are worth considering.

First, the number of vaccinations that a child receives before the age of five has increased dramatically. In 1983, a child following the CDC’s recommended schedule would have received five vaccines by age five. In 2017, a child following the CDC’s schedule would have received thirty-eight vaccines by age five. This is nearly quadruple what a child received in the 1980's.

Secondly, vaccines are exempt from the rigorous safety testing required by the FDA for all other drugs. This exemption is based on the CDC claim that there is no correlation between vaccines and autism, even though research that justifies this exemption is limited.

Whether or not one agrees with the argument that environmental factors like vaccines can trigger an autoimmune reaction that may cause autism in some children, trying dietary interventions widely used for autoimmune conditions--under supervision by a medical doctor--can certainly do no harm.


Brown AS, et al. Association of maternal insecticide levels with autism in offspring from a national birth cohort. American Journal of Psychiatry. 2018 Aug 16

Handley, J. B. (2018) How to End the Autism Epidemic.

Meyers, Amy. (2017) The Autoimmune Solution: Prevent and Reverse the Full Spectrum of Inflammatory Symptoms and Diseases