Autism: Causes, Symptoms and Natural Support Strategies
Autism is one of the most serious neurodevelopmental conditions in the U.S affecting approximately 2% of children aged 3-17. There has been a dramatic increase in the number of children with this disorder in recent years. As a result, parents are seeking answers as to the underlying causes of autism and natural strategies to support brain health in their children.
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is considered a brain disorder that affects observable social behavior. However, it is more than a behavioral-only diagnosis. Autism affects the whole body. Inflammation, digestive problems, sleep issues, and other symptoms are common in people with autism. These physical symptoms affect the person’s overall health.
Balancing the gut microbiome, using special diets, and supplementing with key nutrients can have a profound impact on a person with autism. We will go over support strategies that may make the biggest difference in this article.
What is Autism?
Autism or ASD is a spectrum of neurological disorders that become apparent in early childhood and last throughout a person’s life (1). It is considered a spectrum disorder because there is wide variation in the type and severity of symptoms people experience. Some people with autism may only have mild symptoms while others can have severe symptoms.
The onset of symptoms of autism usually occurs by age 3, with many parents noticing signs of autism in their child by 6 months of age (2). Symptoms may not fully manifest until the child is school age or later.
Autism is more common in boys than girls with 4 boys being diagnosed for every 1 girl. It occurs in all ethnic, racial, and economic groups.
Autism affects a child’s behavior, social skills, and ability to communicate. Signs and symptoms of autism include:
- Speech delay or regression
- Delay in normal childhood milestones, such as walking
- Sensitivity to sound or to certain noises
- No reciprocal gestures, such as responding to games
- A child 6 months of age or older that does not smile or has stopped smiling
- Repetitive behaviors are common
- Often times the child doesn’t want to be touched
- Loud noises can be extremely disturbing to the child
In addition to these symptoms, systemic inflammation, gastrointestinal immune-related problems, and changes in the gut microbiota are characteristic for people with autism (1). Anxiety and depression, sleep disturbances, and a range of comorbid medical conditions are also common autism-associated impairments.
Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome:
Intellectual disability and attention deficits occur in approximately 30% of ASD cases. However, people with autism may have many strengths including:
- Being able to learn things in detail and remember information for long periods of time
- Being strong visual and auditory learners
- Excelling in math, science, music or art
In 2013, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) was revised to include autistic disorder, Asperger’s syndrome, and pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified into one diagnosis called “autism spectrum disorder” (“ASD”). Asperger’s syndrome is a milder ASD with less severe symptoms.
People with Asperger’s usually have trouble talking and writing but have normal intelligence. The strategies in this article may be helpful for people with any type of ASD.
Factors that May Contribute to Autism
The etiology of autism is unclear and likely multifactorial. There are several potential causes of autism including genetics, dysregulated immune system, inflammation, environmental factors, and gastrointestinal (GI) problems, including imbalances in the microbiome.
These factors can impact a child in all stages of development: prenatally, during birth, and postnatally. Other factors which may contribute to the increase in children diagnosed with autism are changes in diagnostic criteria, increased awareness, and the ability to diagnose at a younger age.
1. Immune System Dysregulation
Numerous studies show the link between a compromised immune system and autism. This is often reflected by abnormal cytokine levels in their body fluids. Autism is associated with a deregulation of the immune-like cells in the brain (microglia and astroglia), autoimmunity, increased T cell activation, deregulated innate immune functioning and mutations in genes controlling the functioning of immune cells.
There is a lot of controversy and debate as to whether vaccinations cause autism. Vaccinations are a huge insult to the immune system. When a person’s immune system is compromised, it does not reach to environmental insults like vaccines in a normal way. In that way, vaccinations may contribute to the development or advancement of disorders like autism, allergies, and autoimmune conditions.
Additional factors that contribute to immune system dysregulation include gut dysbiosis, the use of antibiotics, steroids, and other drugs, poor diet, toxins, and food additives.
2. Alterations in Gut Microbiome
From 23-70% of people with autism have GI issues. Children with autism experience four times more gastrointestinal symptoms than control groups (1). Common GI symptoms in people with autism include constipation, abdominal pain, gas, diarrhea. More than 50% of these GI symptoms may be due to imbalanced gut microbiota.
Our bodies are home to trillions of bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other microbes. In a healthy body, the microbiota is balanced and beneficial. The gut flora is the largest population of microbes in our bodies. They live in our digestive system and affect brain development and behaviors through the neuroendocrine, neuroimmune, and autonomic nervous systems.
The association between alterations in the gut flora and autism is evident (3). The potential mechanisms by which the microbiota impacts the gut-brain axis and autism progression involve inflammatory and metabolic pathways and alteration of epithelial barrier integrity.
Microbiome and Autism
A 2019 meta-analysis found that participants with ASD had a lower abundance of Akkermansia, Bacteroides, Bifidobacterium, E. coli, and Enterococcus, a higher abundance of Faecalibacterium and Lactobacillus, and a slightly increased abundance of Ruminococcus and Clostridium (3).
There was a decrease in beneficial bacteria in patients with autism and supplementing with Bifidobacterium species-containing probiotics improved specific ASD symptoms. Lower levels of Bifidobacterium and higher levels of Lactobacillus as found in the analysis suggests an imbalance of beneficial bacteria.
Another theory is that alterations in the gut flora lead to changes in brain function by increasing production of propionic acid. Propionic acid is a short-chain fatty acid. When there is an excess of propionic acid, it can alter metabolic and immune pathways, gene expression, and synaptic plasticity as seen in autism.
3. Poor Diet
Dietary patterns often associated with autism include a high intake of processed foods and a lack of fruits and vegetables. Included in this list are sugars, refined carbohydrates, toxic fats, farmed fish, factory-farmed meat and dairy, and processed foods. These foods have a damaging effect on the immune system and lead to gut dysbiosis.
Processed foods lack nutrition and are full of preservatives, food coloring, aspartame, preservatives like MSG, trans-fats, and other toxic substances. This can be very problematic for anyone with autism. There is also a possible link between consumption of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and autism, so it is important to avoid these foods.
4. Food Allergies/Sensitivities
Food allergies or sensitivities are more common in individuals with autism. Reactions to food allergies are usually immediate. However, food sensitivities can be difficult to identify because symptoms are usually delayed. One of the most common food allergies/sensitivities is casein, the protein in cow’s milk.
Autism is also associated with increased mast cell activation, which plays a central role in driving allergic reactions. Mast cell activation results in the release of inflammatory and neurotoxic mediators which may influence ASD associated behaviors.
5. Vitamin D Deficiency and Autism
Gestational and early childhood vitamin D deficiency is linked to autism (4). Vitamin D is a neurosteroid that is active in brain development. The ideal range for vitamin D3 levels is between 50-80 ng/ml. Vitamin D3 is created in your skin in response to sun exposure.
There are numerous dietary sources of vitamin D such as wild-caught salmon and fatty fish, cod liver oil, grass-fed butter and raw cheese, egg yolks, mushrooms, and beef liver. Supplementing with vitamin D may improve the core symptoms of autism. In fact, studies show that about 75% of autistic children had improvements in symptoms with high doses of vitamin D.
Another study showed that vitamin D supplementation during pregnancy of 5,000 IU’s a day and during infancy and childhood of 1,000 iu’s a day reduced the incidence of autism from 20% to 5% for mothers who already had one autistic child.
6. Maternal Medication Use
Autism is associated with the use of medications by the mother during pregnancy. Researchers have found a link between prenatal exposure to epilepsy medications and acetaminophen and autism.
Studies have found an association between the use of acetaminophen during pregnancy and autism symptoms and adverse attention-deficit symptoms (5, 6). This is because mothers and children with autism tend to have slower or impaired sulfation which is a critical part of the phase II liver detoxification system. With inadequate sulfation, there is incomplete detoxification and an a depletion of glutathione, which results in increased oxidative stress in the child’s brain.
7. Genetics and Autism
Genetics plays a role in predisposing children to autism. There are common gene variants that account for most of the genetic risk (7). Genetics also influences how kids that are exposed to environmental triggers or an altered gut microbiome respond to these factors.
The genes involved in autism are variable and diverse, but mutations in genes related to the mTOR (mammalian target of rapamycin) pathway are most widely associated with autism (1). mTOR has an important role in neurological disorders and is involved in directing immune responses.
Up to 15% of cases can be linked to a known genetic cause through monogenic syndromes. These include Fragile X syndrome, Tuberous Sclerosis, and Timothy Syndrome (2).
Special Diets That May Be Helpful For Autism
Diet can play a huge role in improving the symptoms of autism. Consuming an anti-inflammatory diet of whole, unprocessed foods is critical. These foods include grass-fed, pastured, organic meats, wild-caught fish, organic fruits and vegetables, and healthy fats. Removing processed and conventionally grown foods is important.
There are special diets that can be very beneficial for certain people. For example, eliminating gluten and casein from the diet has been shown to improve symptoms in children with autism (9).
One of the most popular diets for autism is the GAPS diet. Other diets that may be helpful are the low salicylate diet, low oxalate diet, and the ketogenic diet. Histamines and glutamates may also be problematic for certain individuals.
One could try each of these diets for 2-4 weeks and see if they notice improvements. If the autistic child gets better with one of the diets, it may be beneficial to lean more into that for a few months. If you are confused on how to implement each one of these, it is a good idea to work with a bioindividulized nutrition practitioner. Let’s look more closely at some of these diets and how they can be beneficial.
1. GAPS Diet
The Gut and Psychology Syndrome (GAPS) diet was developed by Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride after working with children and adults with autism and other neurological and psychiatric conditions. GAPS recognizes the connection between the functions of the digestive system and the brain. The GAPS diet was derived from the Specific Carbohydrate Diet (SCD) but is adjusted to address the needs of people suffering from intestinal and neurological conditions resulting from a compromised microbiome.
The GAPS diet removes foods that are difficult to digest and damaging to gut flora and replaces them with east to digest, nutrient-dense foods. Foods eliminated include complex carbohydrates, lactose, sucrose, and processed foods from the diet. The GAPS diet helps to improve chronic inflammatory conditions in the digestive tract.
2. Low Salicylate Diet
Many children with autism are sensitive to salicylates. This is likely due to poor sulfation, a biochemical process that researchers have found to be low in children with autism (8).
Salicylates are a group of chemicals derived from salicylic acid. These compounds are found naturally in certain foods and synthetically in other substances. Salicylates can cause adverse reactions in people who are intolerant.
Symptoms of salicylate intolerance or sensitivity include stuffy nose, sinus infection and inflammation, nasal and sinus polyps, asthma, diarrhea, gas, abdominal pain, gut inflammation, hives, and tissue swelling. A low salicylate diet is critical for people suffering with salicylate intolerance or sensitivity. This article has more information on major symptoms of salicylate sensitivity and foods to avoid.
Salicylates can also be found in non-food products such as mint-flavored toothpaste, shampoos and conditioners, perfumes, mouthwash, lotions, and medications. The most potent source is aspirin and other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), including ibuprofen.
3. Low Oxalate Diet
A low oxalate (oxalic acid) diet restricts foods that are high in oxalates. Oxalic acid is an organic compound found in many foods such as spinach, beets, chocolate, peanuts, wheat bran, tea, berries, and nuts (cashews, pecans, and almonds). These foods are very healthy for most people, but excessive consumption can cause high levels of oxalic acid in the body.
In addition to obtaining oxalates from food, your body can produce oxalic acid. It is the most acidic organic acid in the body, derived primarily from fungus (Aspergillus and Penicillium), Candida, or a person’s metabolism. Deficiencies in vitamin B6 which are common in autism can also contribute to elevations in oxalic acid.
High oxalates can cause oxidative damage, inflammation, and pain. Oxalate crystals may form in joints, blood vessels, muscles, kidneys, lungs, heart, thyroid, eyes, and even the brain. High oxalic acid can hinder proper function of vital bodily functions, poison the mitochondria, damage tissues, and contribute to kidney stones.
In the gastrointestinal tract, high oxalates may significantly reduce absorption of essential minerals such as calcium, magnesium, zinc, and more. Mineral deficiencies are common in autism. Reducing these inflammatory oxalates helps to heal the gut and reduce yeast and dysbiosis. For more information on a low oxalate diet, read this article.
4. Ketogenic Diet
The ketogenic diet is a high fat, low carbohydrate, moderate protein nutrition plan. This nutrition and lifestyle plan helps your body use fat (stored fat and dietary fat) rather than sugar for fuel.
With a ketogenic diet, 60-80% of calories are from healthy fats, 20-30% are from protein sources, and 5-10% are from net carbs (total carbs minus fiber). The health benefits of a ketogenic diet include reducing inflammation, improving cognitive function, balancing blood sugar levels, and more.
The ketogenic diet has been shown to reduce symptoms of autism. One study compared the ketogenic diet to a gluten-free, casein-free (GFCF) diet, and the ketogenic diet produced greater results (9). However, the ketogenic diet was more difficult for children to follow. For information on the benefits of the ketogenic diet, check out this article.
How to do an Elimination Diet
There are certain foods that are most likely to cause an immune response in the body. An elimination diet helps to identify problematic. The foods eliminated are those that are most commonly allergenic or inflammatory including gluten, dairy, sugar, eggs, corn, soy, vegetable oils, grains, shellfish, tree nuts, legumes, and nightshade vegetables.
To do an elimination diet, you eliminate certain foods for around 4-6 weeks to see if there is any improvement in symptoms. Once the person has removed offending foods, they can begin to heal and restore their system by adding foods, nutrients, and targeted supplements. The goal is to increase nutrient levels, improve biochemistry and cellular function, heal the gut, and restore the microbiome.
The next step is to slowly reintroduce foods that were eliminated. While reintroducing foods, it is important to record all foods consumed with any positive or negative symptoms. You should modify the nutrition plan based on the results of reintroduction and expand the diet to include foods with as much variety and nutrient density as tolerated.
Brain Healthy Foods For Autism
There are certain foods with particular benefits for brain health. These include grass-fed beef, wild-caught salmon, citrus fruits, dark chocolate and raw cacao, and herbs.
Grass-fed Beef and Wild-caught Salmon
Adequate protein intake is crucial for children with autism. Children with autism may have decreased levels of amino acids such as tryptophan, phenylalanine, and taurine which can indicate an increased need for protein (8).
Grass-fed beef is loaded with omega-3 fatty acids, conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), saturated fat, vitamin B12, and carnosine. These nutrients are key for developing a healthy brain and optimizing brain function (10). Avoid conventionally raised, grain-fed beef which has less nutrients and much more inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids and toxic environmental chemicals.
Wild-caught salmon is full of the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA which are crucial for brain health (11). Wild salmon also has astaxanthin which has been shown to decrease oxidative stress and inflammation in the body (12). Children with autism may have higher levels of oxidative stress (8).
Lemons and limes are naturally rich in vitamin C, citrus bioflavonoids, and key electrolytes such as potassium and magnesium. Citrus bioflavonoids are unique phytonutrients that are classified as vitamin P.
Citrus bioflavonoids improve capillary permeability and blood flow, which helps oxygenate the deep regions of the brain. The deep regions of the brain are critical for cognitive processing and sensory acuity. Citrus essential oils are also excellent sources of citrus bioflavonoids.
Dark Chocolate and Raw Cacao
Dark chocolate is great for brain health. It has positive effects on inflammation, stress, mood, memory and immunity (13). Dark chocolate is truly a superfood containing many nutrients including fiber, magnesium, iron, copper, calcium, protein, and manganese. Dark chocolate contains oleic acid and is loaded with a mixture of polyphenols, especially flavonoids, which have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Chocolate may also increase neurotransmitter levels in the brain like dopamine and serotonin.
The higher the cacao concentration, the more positive impact on brain health. Dark (70% or more cocoa) is less process and has higher amounts of antioxidants. For the best results, look for raw cacao which you can find in powder and nibs. If you have issues with oxalate metabolism then it is best to avoid or use minimal amounts of chocolate.
Herbs and spices such as cinnamon, rosemary and turmeric are excellent for brain health. Cinnamon is rich in antioxidants and has a very high ORAC score which is its oxygen radical absorbance capacity. This means that cinnamon helps protect neurons from free radical stress. Cinnamon stimulates insulin receptors in the body and plays a powerful role in stabilizing blood sugar levels (14).
Another incredible spice for brain health is turmeric. Turmeric contains curcumin, a powerful compound for brain health. It also contains Ar-turmerone, a fat-soluble compound that may support brain regeneration in neurological disease (15). Ar-turmerone was shown to increase brain stem cells and form new healthy brain cells.
Rosemary is a brain stimulant that helps prevent the breakdown of the key neurotransmitter, acetylcholine (16). Acetylcholine is critical for the everyday functioning of the brain, particularly in the areas of movement, learning, memory and sleep quality.
Supplements for Brain Health
Autism is a complicated disease characterized by chronic brain inflammation. There are many natural supplements that help to improve the inflammatory response and support brain health. While these are not FDA approved to prevent, mitigate, treat or cure Autism, they can be very beneficial.
Omega 3 Fatty Acids and Autism
Essential fatty acids help to maintain cellular membrane health. Omega 3 fatty acids have been shown to reduce inflammation and improve brain health.
Cod liver oil is one of the best sources of omega 3 fatty acids EPA and DHA. Cod liver oil also has vitamin D and it is a great source of vitamin A for brain, skin and eye health. You can often find it in a liquid form which may work out if the autistic child has trouble swallowing pills. You can also consider putting it in smoothies or mixing it in food.
Nutrient deficiencies are common in autism. One large comprehensive study found that children with autism had lower levels of several vitamins (especially biotin) and some minerals (lithium, calcium, and magnesium) (8). Supplementation has been shown to be very helpful in replenishing deficiencies and improving symptoms of autism.
You can often find chewable multi-vitamins that are formulated to address children’s unique nutritional needs for growth, development, and vitality. Be sure to look for a complete multivitamin and mineral formula with nutrients in their most highly absorbable form that is free of additives, preservatives, and allergens.
A lot of people with autism have MTHFR mutations, which means they don’t process B vitamins and other nutrients as well. I like to look for pre-activated forms of B vitamins such as methyl-folate, methyl-cobalamin (B12), Pyridoxal-5-Phosphate form of B6, and Riboflavin-5-phosphate form of vitamin B2.
The methyl groups in the active form and will be better utilized by the body and have a better impact on the process of methylation. Methylation is critical for detoxification, helping turn on healthy gene expression, immune function and supporting brain health.
Gut Healing Supplements
Improving gut health and balancing the microbiome is critical for anyone with autism. The gut is considered the second brain due to the amount of nerve endings and neurotransmitters that are linked to gut function. When the gut lining is inflamed and damaged, large proteins enter the bloodstream. This creates inflammation in all tissues, including the brain.
Probiotics are beneficial microorganisms (bacteria and yeasts) that keep your gut and body healthy. They are similar to the microorganisms that naturally live in our bodies. There are four types of probiotics you may use:
- Food-based probiotics, such as lactobacillus and bifidobacterium species.
- Probiotic yeast, such as saccharomyces boulardii
- Soil-based (SBO) probiotics, such as the bacillus spore forming strains
- Combination probiotics, that have lacto, bifido, S boulardii and bacillus strains.
Not everyone deals with each of these probiotics the same and so you can experiment to see what works best. For children and those with poor swallowing ability, it is a good idea to get chewable supplements if possible.
Digestive enzymes enhance digestive function, improve nutrient absorption, and help to alleviate gastric discomfort. You can find good digestive enzymes that include a variety of key enzymes to address all digestive enzymatic effects. These enzymes are able to survive in the differing pH ranges of the stomach and small intestine.
Magnesium and Autism
Magnesium is the “master mineral” and supports over 300 physiological processes or functions in the body. Magnesium helps to relieve stress and promotes sleep by balancing blood sugar levels and relieving physical tension.
Magnesium also helps to regulate melatonin and GABA levels in the brain. This helps to reduce hyperactivity activity in the brain and helps children and adults be able to focus, improve mood and sleep more effectively.
A large study showed that glutathione is lower in children with autism (8). Glutathione is the body’s master antioxidant which helps to protect the brain from damaging free radicals.
There are supplements to help boost glutathione such as N-Acetyl-L-Cysteine (NAC) and Acetyl-L-Carnitine (ALC). NAC is an amino acid which is essential for the body to make glutathione. ALC is a type of carnitine produced naturally in the brain. ALC is a powerful antioxidant that is able to permeate the blood-brain barrier and stimulate and fortify the brain’s nerve cells. It can also aid in directing fatty acids to the mitochondria, the powerhouse of the cells. This helps create new cell energy.
Phosphatidylserine (PS) is a class of phospholipids found in cell membranes. PS is critical because it helps the brain use fuel more efficiently. PS boosts neuronal metabolism and stimulates the production of acetylcholine.
Testing For Autism Gut-Brain Problems
Comprehensive Organic Acids Test
My top test for anyone with autism is the Comprehensive Organic Acids Test (OAT). The OAT shows an extensive metabolic snapshot of a person’s overall health.
The OAT measures neurotransmitter levels, yeast, fungal, and bacterial overgrowths, oxalates, mitochondria, ketone and fatty acid oxidation, vitamin and mineral levels, Kreb’s cycle (energy production), oxidative stress, and detoxification pathways. This test is an at home urine test so it can be easy for children to do. For more information on the Comprehensive OAT, look here.
GI-MAP™ DNA Stool Analysis
With the gut microbiome playing such a big role in autism, a comprehensive stool analysis is an important test. The GI-MAP Stool Analysis Test is the most thorough stool test on the market. It is a comprehensive stool analysis that identifies levels of normal (good) bacteria as well as dysbiotic (bad) bacteria in the gut. It is a fantastic way to measure imbalances of bacteria.
In addition to bacteria, the GI-MAP can detect Candida and other fungi, and parasites, including both protozoa and worms. This comprehensive stool test can reveal if you have H. pylori, viral pathogens, potential autoimmune triggers, and viruses, including cytomegalovirus and Epstein Barr virus.
The GI Map measures intestinal health with digestion, gastrointestinal, Secretory and Anti-gliadin IgA (immune response), and calprotectin (inflammation) markers. For more information on the GI-MAP and how to order, go here.
Consider Seeing a Functional Health Practitioner
Autism is a serious condition but the severity of the symptoms can dramatically improve with a proper health plan. If you have tried everything and nothing seems to be working, consider finding a functional health practitioner to help you identify the root cause factors and implement a specialized plan to improve your child’s health.
Finding the root cause factors behind the development of autism is key to figuring out the best natural nutritional and lifestyle solutions. Our team of health coaches has been trained by Dr Jockers and other advanced practitioners to sort out the root cause and design programs to help people improve their health. For more info on the DrJockers.com team of health coaches go here
Autism is a complex condition with varying symptoms. This developmental disorder initially occurs in early childhood but can last throughout a person’s life. While the exact cause is unknown, there are a number of factors that may contribute to autism.
There are natural strategies to help people manage the symptoms of autism. Improving gut health and balancing the microbiome are key strategies. There are a number of special diets that can make a profound impact in a person with autism. Targeted supplementation may also be very beneficial. There are a variety of tests which may be helpful, including the Organic Acids Test and the GI Map.