Perhaps the most discouraging news a parent can hear is the news that their child is "different" from other children. So let me start out with an encouraging word.
And, that is particularly true for children with autism. That's why I called this week's Health Tip "The Complexity of Autism".
If you have a child with autism, you have probably seen blogs or websites written by parents who claim to have cured their child's autism through simple nutritional approaches such as eliminating dairy products or gluten from their diet; by adding DHA or other of omega-3 fatty acids to their diet; or by using some sort of supplement that claims to reduce autism symptoms (Most of those supplements exceed the RDA for hype and fall far below the RDA for sound science).
And, like any caring parent, you have tried that nutritional approach or supplement with your child, only to find that it provided little, if any, benefit.
Why is that? There is a review in a recent issue of the journal Science (Beaudet, Science, 338: 342-348, 2012) that sheds light on that question.
It turns out that there are literally hundreds of genetic mutations that can give rise to autism - and those are just the mutations that we currently know about. There may be many more.
But, the complexity doesn't stop there. Each of those mutations can give rise to a variety of symptoms including autism, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, epilepsy and mental disability. And, in most cases those mutations lead to no discernible phenotype at all. Simply put, that means that most children with those mutations are completely normal.
The bulk of the review was about two recently discovered mutations that lead to defined metabolic abnormalities that are highly treatable. One is a mutation in branched chain amino acid metabolism that leads to an increased requirement for branched chain amino acids in the diet. The second is a mutation in carnitine metabolism that leads to increased requirement for carnitine.
Both of these mutations appear to be extremely rare, and not every child with these mutations develops autism. The author suggests that if the levels of those nutrients are adequate during fetal brain development and early childhood, autism is not inevitable in children with these mutations. Of course, that is simply a hypothesis at this point. Knowledge of these mutations is so new that intervention studies have only been attempted in animal models, but they have been successful in those models.
So if you have a child with autism, what does this mean for you?
1) Just because a particular nutritional approach worked for somebody else's child, doesn't mean that it's going to work for your child. If it's not weird, dangerous, or overly expensive, it might be worth trying - but don't expect miracles.
2) It might be worthwhile asking your doctor if they recommend genetic testing, but keep in mind that there is no effective therapy for the vast majority of mutations linked to autism, and there are probably many mutations which increase the risk of autism that we don't even know about.
3) Good nutrition is always important. I often come across parents who, upon being told that there is no definitive nutritional cause or cure for their child's disease, think the nutrition doesn't matter. After all, the child is suffering enough. Why shouldn't they just eat pizza, soda and pop tarts?
If you think about that for a minute, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Clinical studies have shown that good nutrition is important for brain development as well as behavioral and psychological development even in children without any genetic predisposition to autism.
It just makes sense that the same principles would apply to children with autism. We already know that not all children with a given genetic defect will develop autism, so it is very likely that the metabolic, physical, and emotional environment of the child also plays an important role.
So what is good nutrition for your child? The USDA recommends 6 servings of whole grains, two servings of fresh fruit and 3 servings of fresh vegetables for toddlers; 9 servings of whole grains, 3 servings of fresh fruit and 4 servings of fresh vegetables for children; and 11 servings of whole grains, 4 servings of fresh fruit and 5 servings of fresh vegetables for teens. And, if your child isn't meeting those recommendations, you might want to consider supplementation to fill in the gaps.
To Your Health!
Dr. Stephen G Chaney
These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.