Ask any random stranger today if he’s aware of autism and you’ll likely get a look of disbelief translated as “duh, yes.” It’s a ludicrous question given the prevalence of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and how often it’s in the headlines. Yet, not long ago, it was a relatively novel condition.
About ten years ago, I worked as a Psychiatric Technician in a children’s mental health crisis unit. The hospital I worked for was the only one in the metro area that accepted autistic children with mental crises (meaning they had become a physical threat to themselves or others). I had never heard of autism prior to this experience – despite having a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology. It had been included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders since before I was studying it as a college student, yet it wasn’t widespread enough to merit a single class discussion.
Working with severely distressed Autistic children was a life changing experience. Actually, my favorite patient was an autistic boy named Albert. Even though he was also my most violent patient (and unexpected head-butts to my face were not uncommon), he had a purity and sweetness to him I found indescribable. He was unable to really communicate, but he loved singing and Disney movies and every so often he would quietly utter some random line from one his favorite songs or movies. From the distant recesses of his mind came these brief mystic messages.
Being passionate about psychology, I wanted to understand what was going on inside his mind and why. I started doing some research and learned the developmental story – a baby is born with normally functioning cognition and around age 2-3 something goes awry. Parents repeatedly report that their children “disappear” behind some indiscernible internal wall. As a parent, I cannot fathom this transformation. Albert’s parents, both kind and intelligent physicians, were understandably distraught.
I was stunned to learn that Albert’s sister also had ASD. Considering how uncommon the condition was back at the time, I couldn’t understand how both children in this family could have it. Albert’s mother believed it was something in the environment, as there was a cluster of cases where they lived. Today, concerned parents, physicians, and public health advocates are actively exploring possible environmental triggers to combat what is now an epidemic. In the past decade, the prevalence of ASD has sky-rocketed: the disease now affects 1 in 110 children according to the CDC.
Environmental links are undeniable, especially given our increased exposure to chemicals and heavy metals known to have neurological and developmental impacts.
According to Catherine Zandonella, M.P.H., in “Brain Drain: Could Environmental Chemicals Cause Autism?”:
The chemicals known to cause harm to the developing fetal and infant brain are part of a larger family of 200 chemicals known from workplace studies to cause neurological harm in humans, according to a review article by Philip J. Landrigan of the Children’s Environmental Health Center at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine published in the January, 2010 issue of Current Opinion in Pediatrics. Children are exposed to roughly 3,000 chemicals in personal care products, building materials, cleaning products and motor vehicle fuels, yet fewer than 20 percent of these chemicals have been tested thoroughly to see if they harm the developing brain. “We’ve created a situation where we are exposing our children and grandchildren every day to new chemicals that didn’t exist [until recently],” says Landrigan. “We’ve never tested them, and we don’t have a clue what these chemicals do to early development.”
When it comes to environmental exposures, much of the public focus has been on finding links between vaccines and autism. Landrigan argues, however, that it is time to move on. “There have been a dozen well-conducted epidemiological studies that have failed to detect a connection between vaccines and autism,” Landrigan says, “so I think as a matter of research priority it is time to look at other hazards.”
Chemicals suspected of harming the developing brain include phthalates (found in personal care products), bisphenol A or BPA, (found in the linings of food cans), brominated flame retardants (found in old computers, television sets and foam padding), chlorinated solvents used in industry, the now-banned organochlorine pesticide DDT, and organophosphate pesticides. Although these chemicals have not been directly linked to ASD, the fact that they can cause learning and behavioral problems supports the idea that chemicals in the environment could cause ASD.
ASD is compromising the potential of unacceptable numbers of children. Increased awareness and diagnosis has certainly played a part in this epidemic increase, but it’s only one piece of the puzzle. We have created an environment that is making our children sick. Identifying environmental links and eliminating them should be at the top of every autism agenda. It’s time to raise awareness of how to prevent ASD.
Learn more about National Autism Awareness Month and how to get involved (including The Autism Society’s advocacy work to reform TSCA and better protect children from toxic exposures.)
Read Healthy Child’s position on ASD.