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The ADHD & Autism Spectrum Disorder Epidemic

Posted Aug 26 2011 7:33am

A recent guest post on KevinMD’s blog points out that the rate of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) has increased 57% from 2002 to 2006. Currently, about 1 out of every 100 children born are thought to have ASD. It’s estimated that about 60 to 70% of ASD are from environmental factors, whereas 30-40% are due to genetic issues. The writer, Philip Landrigan, focuses on the possible environmental causes of autism and ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), arguing that there are now over 80,000 synthetic chemicals that have been developed over the past 50 years. Many of these compounds have been shown to be toxic to developing brains in children. Currently 200 are toxic in adult humans, and another 1,000 are toxic in experimental models.

I have no doubt that many synthetic chemicals can be toxic to childen and adults, including some pharmaceutical products. In the world that we live in, with all the conveniences of modern life, we’re inundated to a multitude of synthetic chemicals, many of which are safe, but some are not.

However, one area that ASD and ADHD researchers almost never bring up during discussions is the fact that sleep-breathing problems are also progressing over time. Having smaller jaws and dental crowding leads to smaller airways, with leads to frequent breathing problems during sleep, with fragmented sleep. Lack of continuous, deep, efficient sleep has been shown to cause a number of biochemical, hormonal, and neurologic changes in the brain, usually for the worse. Countless times, I see children on stimulants for ADHD come off their medications after their large tonsils are taken out. Almost invariably, one or both parents of children with ASD or ADHD have major snoring or sleep apnea. 

Clearly, not everyone with ADHD or ASD has sleep-breathing problems, and not all areas of obstruction are due to large tonsils. However, even if 1/3 of these children have an underlying sleep-breathing problem (some have suggested 50%), wouldn’t it make sense to routinely screen for snoring and sleep apnea in any child with ADHS or ASD? 

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