Can You Prevent Autism?
Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) now affect 1 in 50 American children, up from an estimated 1 in 88 just a few years ago. Renowned pediatrician Dr. Jay Gordon thinks we can reverse the trend.
In his new book Preventing Autism: What You Can Do To Protect Your Children Before and After Birth, pediatrician Dr. Jay Gordon suggests that if we’re willing to check our exposure to certain environmental toxins, we turn the tide on ASDs. We asked him to explain what pregnant and new moms can do about autism—here’s what he had to say.
Your book has a pretty bold title. Without a definitive cause for autism, how can we truly prevent it?
We can lower the incidence of autism because we do know that the condition has both a genetic component and an environmental component. In this way, it’s like many other medical conditions, including heart disease and diabetes. Think about heart disease for a moment. We know that having a family history of heart disease can make someone genetically predisposed to a higher risk for heart attack and stroke. But we also know that environmental factors, such as poor diet and smoking cigarettes make that risk much higher. On the other hand, if the same person eats healthy, exercises and doesn’t smoke, he or she is likely to overcome this genetic destiny.
Autism appears to operate in a similar way, but the problem with autism is that we still don’t fully recognize it as a medical condition. For instance, insurance companies often won’t pay for recommended autism therapies, as they would for heart- or diabetes-related treatments, simply because they don’t acknowledge autism as the medical condition it really is. At the same time, the CDC is reporting that one in 50 kids in the U.S. now has autism. We must reframe our thinking and focus on what we can do to slow down this dramatic increase.
Your focus is on our increasingly toxic environment as the key environmental trigger for autism. With chemical and toxins lurking everywhere—our floors, our couches, the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat—how much control do we really have?
We have a lot of control—probably more control than most of us think. I stopped buying permanent pressed shirts because medical research confirms that the chemicals in these no-iron shirts are bad for you. We have control over so many more things like our shampoo brands, our floor cleaners, what kinds of mattress we sleep on. We have control over the foods we buy and what we choose to feed our kids… It’s also true that we don’t always have control over the air we breathe, so we should encourage our legislators to help clean it up; the same goes for our water and food supplies.
What are the most powerful steps we can take?
The most powerful step by far is to know what you are buying. Know that plastic toys are not good for children. Know that toxic cleaners, products containing flame retardants, and chemicals in personal care products can all be avoided. Making these kinds of choices takes the prevention of autism to a higher level than we’ve [previously] acknowledged because you can do things to reduce risk. I don’t want to wait 10 or 20 years for large research projects to be completed. That’s why my message is to take the steps now—you can take control of these things now—and as a result, you may be able to diminish your child’s risk.
Some solutions aren’t practical for everyone—people can’t always afford to eat organic or replace their mattresses. What are some affordable steps everyone can take?
Do the best you can. Walmart, Target, and other discount retailers do carry organic lines. Walmart and Target sell organic cotton clothing, non-toxic cleaning products, and shampoos with labels that are much more child-friendly. If it’s hard to eat organic food all the time, be sure to read the list of 10 fruits and vegetables that you must avoid unless they’re grown organically, and look at the slightly longer list of conventionally-grown fruits and vegetable that don’t contain as many pesticides—and use this information to help guide your choices. I have a lot of these lists in my book, but they’re easy to find everywhere.
Sometimes, people just throw up their hands and say, “but everything’s toxic.” No, not everything is toxic— and no, you won’t be able to control everything you come in contact with. For example, you can’t control the pillows on the couch of the waiting room at the doctor’s office. Again, you do the best you can.
What if you suspect your child has autism. Can you make lifestyle adjustments then?
Understand that, like all medical conditions, even when you’ve already been diagnosed, there are things you can do to make things better—or prevent things from getting worse. For an easy analogy, take heart disease. If someone is diagnosed with heart disease, he or she gets doctor supervision…it’s probably suggested to engage in moderate exercise, change the diet, and quit smoking as ways to improve the condition or prevent further complications.
If you already know that your child or members of your family have issues with the spectrum, then change what you can change, which includes all these simple lifestyle changes. If you suspect something may be going on, get early diagnosis and early treatment. We know that—just like other medical conditions—when autism is diagnosed early, there are treatments that can make things much easier for the child.
Has autism touched your life?
Autism has touched my life. I work with many children with autism. These are wonderful kids; there is nothing lesser to being a person with autism. But in the face of autism, I know that it is harder for a child and the family’s life tends to more expensive and difficult. There aren’t a lot of people out there who would choose to have a second child with autism.
However, this school of thought that says, “how dare you try to prevent autism!”, is simply not in touch with the fears of most parents. During prenatal appointments or with a four month old, I don’t have parents telling me they’re afraid their child will get injured in the parking lot. The number one fear right now for parents is worrying their child will have autism.
Autism also touches my life in frustrating ways. Where I live and practice in southern California there aren’t a lot of schools for 3, 4, 5-year olds with autism to attend. I don’t have much luck with the insurance industry when I say, “we need more speech therapy for this child…whatever is going on, he’s being greatly exacerbated by his lack of language.” They still say no.
I even see this with doctors who turn parents away when they voice concern by saying, “oh, he’s just a boy being a boy.” As it turns out, he is just being a boy who has autism spectrum disorder.
None of this gives autism the respect it deserves.
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