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Why current thinking about autism is completely wrong...

Posted Sep 22 2008 11:06am 2 Comments

"Autism is caused by poor mothering."

That was the belief of the medical community until the late 1960s.

"Autism is a genetic brain disorder."

That is what most people -- and most of the medical community -- believe today.

I'm here to tell you that neither one of these statements is true.

Think about it.

Rates of autism have skyrocketed over the years, from an estimated 1 child in 3,000 to just 1 in 150 kids today.

Sure, wider criteria for diagnosis and better detection might explain some of it -- but not an increase of this magnitude.

So what's to blame?

Simply put, autism is a systemic body disorder that affects the brain. A toxic environment triggers certain genes in people susceptible to this condition.

And we've got proof.

Dramatic scientific discoveries have taken place during the last 10 to 20 years that reveal the true causes of autism -- and turn conventional thinking on its head.

For example, Martha Herbert, MD, a pediatric neurologist from Harvard Medical School has painted a picture of autism that shows how core abnormalities in body systems like immunity, gut function, and detoxification play central role in causing the behavioral and mood symptoms of autism.

She's also given us a new way of looking at mental disease (and disease in general) that is based on systems biology. (1)

Coming from the halls of the most conservative medical institution in the world, this is a call so loud and clear that it shatters our normal way of looking at things.  

Everything is connected, Dr. Herbert says.

The fact that these kids have smelly bowel movements, bloated bellies, frequent colds and ear infections, and dry skin is not just a coincidence that has nothing to do with their brain function.

It is central to why they are sick in the first place!

Yet conventional medicine often ignores this.

My friend and mentor, Sidney Baker, MD -- a pioneer in the treatment of autism as a body disorder that affects the brain -- often says, "Do you see what you believe or do you believe what you see?"

The problem in medicine is we are so often stuck in seeing what we believe that we often ignore what is right in front of us because it doesn't fit our belief system. 

Nowhere is this true more than in the treatment of autism.

This is in the front of my mind because I see so many behavioral symptoms in kids from learning disabilities, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and autism.

And I see the rates of medication use skyrocketing for these kids -- from stimulants to anti-psychotics (one of the fastest growing drug categories) to anti-seizure medicine, and more. 

There is another way.

Let me tell you a story about a little boy I saw recently.

Last month a mother came to see me, desperate because her 2 1/2 year old son had just been diagnosed with autism.

Sam was born bright and happy, was breast-fed, and received the best medical care available (including all the vaccinations he could possibly have).

He talked, walked, loved, and played normally -- that is, until after his measles, mumps, and rubella vaccination at 22 months.

He received diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, measles, mumps and rubella, chicken pox, hepatitis A and B, influenza, pneumonia, hemophilous, and meningitis vaccines -- all before he was 2 years old.

Then something changed.

He lost his language abilities and became detached, unable to relate in normal ways with his parents and other children, withdrawn, and less interactive -- all signs of autism. 

How could a normal boy be transformed so quickly? 

Sam was taken to the best doctors in New York and "pronounced" as having autism, as if it were a thing you catch like a bug.

His parents were told that nothing could be done except arduously painful and barely effective behavioral and occupational therapy techniques.  The progress would be slow, and his parents should keep their expectations low, the doctor said. 

Devastated, the mother began to seek other options and found her way to me. 

While we have just started working together, the results in only a few weeks have been remarkable. 

There is yet much to undo and peel away, like the layers of an onion. But treating autism as a body disorder that affects the brain gives us SO many other treatment choices. 

Children treated in this way can often have dramatic and remarkable -- if not miraculous -- recoveries.

So what did I find in this little boy that gave me clues about how to treat him? 

Before I tell you, let me remind you that the whole basis of functional and systems medicine, of UltraWellness, is the concept of biochemical individuality.

That means that if you take 100 kids with autism, each one may have unique genetics, and unique causes or triggers for their autism and need very different treatments to get better. 

Autism is just a label. Like every condition or illness, the key is to dig into the layers and peel the onion to discover what is really happening.

We have to pay close attention to what we see, and be ready to work with the unexpected according to the basic principles of biology -- what I have framed as the 7 Keys to UltraWellness.

Back to Sam.

When I first saw him, this little boy was deep in the inner wordless world of autism. Watching him was like watching someone on a psychedelic drug trip. 

So we dug into his biochemistry and genetics and found many things to account for the problems he was having.

He had very high level of antibodies to gluten.  He was allergic not only to wheat, but to dairy, eggs, yeast, and soy -- about 28 foods in total.

He had a leaky gut, and his gut was very inflamed. 

The immune system in his gut showed a high level of inflammation by a marker called eosinophil protein X. He had 3 species of yeast growing in his gut and no growth of healthy bacteria. Urine tests showed very high levels of D-lactate, an indicator of overgrowth of bacteria in the small intestine.

He was deficient in zinc, magnesium, and manganese, vitamins A, B12, and D, and omega-3 fats. 

Like many children with autism, he had trouble making energy in his cells, or mitochondria.

His amino acids -- necessary for normal brain function and detoxification -- were depleted.

His blood showed high levels of aluminum and lead and his hair showed very high levels of antimony and arsenic -- signs of a very toxic little boy. 

His levels of sulfur and glutathione were low, indicating that he just couldn't muster the power to detox all these metals.

In fact, his genes showed a major weak spot in glutathione metabolism, which is the body's main antioxidant and major detoxification highway for getting rid of metals and pesticides.

Sam also had trouble with a key biochemical function called methylation that is required to make normal neurotransmitters and brain chemicals and is critical for helping the body get rid of toxins.
This showed up as low levels of homocysteine (signs of problems with folate metabolism) and high methylmalonic acid (signs of problems with B12 metabolism). He also had two genes that set him up for more problems with this system.

Finally, he also had very high levels of oxidative stress or free radical activity, including markers that told me that his brain was inflamed and under free-radical fire.

Seems complicated, doesn't it?

But it really isn't. 

When I see any patient, I simply work through the 7 keys of UltraWellness to see how everything is connected, create a plan to get to the causes of the problems, and then help each patient deal with all the biochemical and physiological rubble that those causes have left along the road.

Having a roadmap, a new GPS system based on functional medicine and UltraWellness, makes this straightforward.

Take away what's bothering the patient.

Give his body what it is missing and needs to thrive (based on his own biochemical uniqueness).

And his body does the rest.

So how did I help Sam?

Here's the roadmap I followed:

1. Fix his gut and cool the inflammation there

a. Take away the gluten and food allergies
b. Get rid of the yeast with anti-fungals
c. Kill off the toxic bacteria in his small intestine with special antibiotics
d. Replenish healthy bacteria with probiotics
e. Help him digest his food with enzymes

2. Replace the missing nutrients to help his genes work better

a. Add back zinc, magnesium, folate, and vitamins A, B6, B12, and D
b. Support the brain with omega-3 fats

3. After I get his biochemistry and nutrition tuned up, we'll help him detoxify and reduce oxidative stress

a. We need to give him chelating medication and detoxifying nutrients to help him get rid of the metals -- I suspect he has high mercury levels, too -- and to help him with his weak glutathione metabolism and oxidative stress

Improve nutrition, reduce inflammation, heal the gut, detoxify... Sound familiar?

As I said before, the keys of UltraWellness can help, no matter what the disease or condition.

You see, biology has basic laws, which we have to follow and understand. 

All the details of Sam's story fit into these laws.  We just have to dig deep, peel back the layers, and understand what is going on.

How's Sam doing?

Well, after following a gluten-free diet and treating his gut for 3 weeks, he showed dramatic and remarkable improvement. He's getting back much of his language skills and showing much more connection and relatedness in his interactions.  

And we are just starting to peel back the layers. 

There is still much work to do. But we have a roadmap -- and more importantly, a way of thinking about things -- that can help create miracles.

Remember, every child with behavior problems, ADHD, or autism is unique -- and each has to find his or her own path with a trained doctor.  But the gates are open and the wide road of healing is in front of you. 

You simply have to take the first step.

Please visit for more information on this subject, including resources and conferences for doctors and parents.

That's all for today.

Now I'd like to hear from you...

Are you raising a child with autism?

How is he or she being treated?

Have you tried any of the approaches here? How have they helped?

Please click on the Add a Comment button below to share your thoughts.

To your good health,

Mark Hyman, M.D.

(1) Herbert MR. Autism: A brain disorder, or a disorder that affects the brain? Clinical Neuropsychiatry. 2005;2(6):354-379.

Comments (2)
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Dr. Hyman,

Great article. Microbial overgrowth or altered subpopulations or normal microbiota cause many poorly understood conditions.

Unfortunately there are not many good commercial tests available.

What US labs do D-lactate tests? I know that Mayo clinic offers this test for plasma, but as it is readily excreted urine tests should work better.

What do you think about Indicans, VOCs, vitamine, gut permeability and gut fermentation profile (blood alcohols measured after fasting followed by intake of sucrose)?

Would you recommend these tests in any specific order, to save patients' money? 


Irene Gabashvili, PhD, Stanford Medical Informatics Alumni


Contact Aurametrix if you are interested in early exploratory trials to diagnose altered microbial balance
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