The below musings were inspired by this article: Changes in gut microbiome play a role in autism development, study reveals (studyfinds.org)
What causes autism?
I don’t think there is a single cause of autism. I don’t think we are really talking about a single thing. What we call autism, I believe, is the presentation of symptoms rather than the disease itself. This isn’t unique or new. Really, we only say autism colloquially. There is some neurological condition that presents as what we call autism. But what causes that condition? Just as many diseases can present with a fever and coughing, I think many disease can present with what we call autism.
This is important in relation to the linked article because if what they are saying is true, I do not think it represents a cure for autism for everyone.
Can the gut really change a person’s behavior?
At first it is easy to dismiss bacteria in the gut as having anything at all to do with the brain. Then when you take a moment to think about the very common ways your stomach alters your mood you start to see that something is there. We know that when we are hungry, or eat something “off”, or even eat too much sugar or carbs, that it alters how we feel. Imagine someone who, because of the configuration of gut microbiome has something like that going on all the time.
That long term research revealed changes in autistic individuals’ social tendencies, such as lethargy and social withdrawal, correlated with the timing of various bacterial fluctuations in the stomach. Furthermore, a drop in microbiome diversity revealed a link to subsequent worsening of inappropriate speech.
There are two things that correspond really well to the rise in the rates of autism.
Statistics show that there are two things that are more prevalent in the daily lives of children that have also seen a marked increase in the timeframe of autism’s increase.
The first thing is the rise in cable television, then smart phones, then streaming services. Along with the greater availability of media we find changes in media itself. Google comparisons in how movies and TV were edited 30 years ago vs how they are edited now. The number of cuts per minute has increased dramatically. Think of an old cowboy movie then think of a modern action flick.
The second thing is the increase in “processed” foods. I put quotes there because the word processed in this case has the more modern meaning of factory food. All food is processed in some way before it hits our stomachs. Chewing and salivating are methods used to process the food. So is cooking, cutting, marinating, and more. Processing food in those ways is different, thus the quotes. The processing I am talking about is the kind we have generally come to frown upon. It uses chemicals, preservatives, flavoring agents, coloring agents, and other mechanical steps to get the food to last and last and make it to you in a form that resembles freshness.
Of course I fully understand that correlation does not equal causation. The rise in personal media and processed food may have nothing at all to do with the increased rates of autism. However, this all makes some sense to me in terms of the timing of the increase we see in autism rates.
Some have pointed to a rise in pollution rates. However, those rates have been in decline for sometime and so are not likely to be a factor. Others have speculated that things like fluoride in water is a factor. That also is not likely as the rise in autism does not correspond well to the use of fluoride which started in the 1940’s and peeked in the early 1960’s.
Are some kids just being misdiagnosed?
Another theory on the rise of autism is that it is simply being diagnosed more frequently due to changes in awareness and definitions. No doubt increased awareness and improved screening have increased the numbers somewhat. But statistically speaking something more seems to be going on. That just doesn’t account for it all. Keep in mind that in all of this I am not talking about those who have self-diagnosed or parents who say their kids are “on the spectrum” even though they have not obtained an official diagnosis.
I think we face this issue often when it comes to mental illness as a whole. The same symptoms manifest for many different causes.
Autism is nothing more than a set of symptoms at this point with little to no understanding of the actual mechanism behind it. If gut microbiome treatments can help, then I think we should explore that. If keeping your child away from screens until they are a certain age will help, I think we should try that.
We throw a lot at kids that shouldn’t be.
I saw a video wherein a brother was being supportive of his transgender sibling. He said his sibling knew at the age of two years old that they were transgender. No. No they did not. At two years old they cannot know such a thing. Developmentally they are unable to comprehend complex ideas at all. They hardly know at two years old that there is a difference between boys and girls, let alone what is important about those differences. I argue that most adults don’t even understand this concept, let alone a two year old.
That means to me that this child, this anecdotal two year old, only knew what adults presented. Certainly there could be no actual understanding. The adults in that child’s life tossed a whole lot that child’s way.
We do that with everything now. Little children are given sex education, gender studies, and on television they see things that they cannot understand presented in ways that their brains have not developed to process. But as their brains develop, they develop in reaction to that stimuli. Data and stimuli alter the brain. We know that. You can still do it as an adult. But when it happens to children, those things get “baked” in. They become part of the child’s neural processes.
I simply lay out that autism, and its rise, are preventable but doing so requires resistance to modern life. I phrase it that way on purpose because when it is put thus the idea seems far-fetched, outlandish, like a cook, fringe thing. I get that telling people in 2021 that they shouldn’t let their two year old have a tablet or phone is odd. I get that telling people now days that the only television they should let their kids watch are shows from the 1960’s or shows that have similar pacing, is odd.
There is a reason Mr. Rogers is good television for kids. It was slow, simple, intimate, and age appropriate. Though the topics were sometimes big, they were always reduced by Mr. Rogers simple manner and appropriate explanation.
You have the power to get that back into your kids’ lives. I recommend it. I suspect it will reduce the rates of autism. However, even if that is totally wrong, I still think it’s a good path forward for parents who live in a world that daily assaults their children.