Autism And The Environment.


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Dear EarthTalk: What’s going on with all the cases of autism cropping up and no one seems to know why? It stands to reason it must be something (or some things) environmental, yet every study allegedly turns up no conclusion? What are the possible causes?

No doubt about it, autism rates have skyrocketed in the U.S. and beyond in recent years. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the disease affects one in every 150 children born today in the U.S., up from one in 500 as recently as just 10 years ago. It’s become the fastest-growing developmental disability – more prevalent than childhood cancer, juvenile diabetes and pediatric AIDS combined – and it continues to grow at a rate of 10 to 17 percent per year.

While researchers think there is a genetic component to autism, they also believe environmental factors are playing a role in its recent increase. Environmental mercury and other heavy metal exposure, contaminated water, pesticides, a greater reliance on antibiotics – and even extensive television viewing by very young children – may be factors in mounting autism rates. Researchers at the American Academy of Pediatrics and other institutes have also identified flame retardants as possible culprits.

Vaccines containing the mercury preservative thimerosal (now mostly removed from the market) have long been blamed for causing autism, but scientific links are inconclusive. In lieu of a smoking gun, a more complex picture of autism’s environmental causes is now emerging.

Some researchers are focusing on the role of food in a young child’s development. Many autistic children suffer from digestive diseases or have genetic dispositions rendering them unable to naturally rid their bodies of toxins. As such, exposure to heavy metals, pesticides, contaminated water and even processed food could have a devastating cumulative effect, some researchers think. According to Brian MacFabe, a researcher at the University of Western Ontario who has studied autism triggers in rats, simple changes such as removing wheat and dairy from the diet could potentially bring about improvements.

Groups such as the nonprofit Healthy Child Healthy World say it’s about time researchers are looking at environmental factors. “Whatever triggered this current autism epidemic…autistic kids clearly need extra protection from further environmental assault,” the group writes on its blog. They advise parents to be vigilant about the industrial cleaners used in school buildings and the pesticides sprayed on playing fields, where kids spend 25 to 30 hours per week. They and other groups are also looking at the role of untested chemicals in common cleaning products: phthalates, glycol ethers and other known toxins.

Others wonder if a collective “nature deficit disorder” among children plays a factor in rising autism rates. Outdoor exposure has long been associated with healthier cognitive functioning in children, with reduction in Attention Deficit Disorder symptoms and greater emotional capacity. But new findings suggest it could impact autism, too. Last year, Cornell University researchers found higher rates of autism in counties where more households subscribed to cable and children under the age of three regularly watched TV. The Amish, with almost no exposure to TV, have little evidence of autism, notes the study.

CONTACTS: CDC Autism Information Center,; Healthy Child Healthy World,

GOT AN ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTION? Send it to: EarthTalk, c/o E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881 USA; submit it at EarthTalk; or e-mail us. Read past columns at our archives.

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  1. Thanks for the insightful comment Donna, appreciate it. I agree with you – money should be spent on all ages of people. A child of one of my best friends was just diagnosed, and seeing how hard it is for them shows me how hard it must have been for you guys 28 years ago.

    Hopefully a lot of good will come out of people paying more attention nowadays.

  2. As the parent of a 28 year old autistic daughter, I would like to make a few observations.

    First, the definition of autism has changed over the years which is a big reason for the appearance of such a dramatic increase in cases. I think it would be a kindness to tell parents that just because their child is shy, or prefers to play alone, or seems to be late in learning to talk does not automatically mean their child is autistic. Keep in mind that public preschools and all public educational systems receive additional funding for every child they can place in “Special Education” programs.

    As far as foods, it is true that many autistic people have difficultly with foods, but at least some part of that is connected to an associated condition of Sensory Defensiveness Disorder, in which the autistic individual is limited to very few foods because the taste, color, odor, etc. MUST be exactly the same each time it is served or they cannot eat.

    Environmental factors may be a factor, but having friendships with other parents of autistic adults, I can say with conviction that autism didn’t suddenly appear in our children at age two or three. The nurses in the hospitals as well as grandmothers and other women in our communities were concerned that our infants didn’t want to be held or touched in the same way as other babies. I would would hope that environmental factors to be studied would include prenatal exposures.

    While I am pleased to see that the disease of autism is receiving attention, it is very frustrating to have raised a severely autistic child in a time when there were no special programs, classes or assistance of any manner, a time when we were told to take them home and love them, to now see that there is money for autism, but it is all going to programs for young children. There is still nothing available to assist those of us with adult autistic family members. The Federal Assistance Programs have been frightened by the numbers of cases being reported and are making qualification much more difficult for those of us trying to receive benefits for our adult children so that there will be some means to provide them with good care when we die.

    This isn’t just about little children. They grow up and remain autistic.

  3. Thank you for sharing your story I wanted to recommendation i just finished reading the book power vs force and your body doesn’t lie. i think that they are amazing books and would help out all parents. you can never learn to much and it can only help yourself and your kids.

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