Autism: Children Who Can't Speak

Classic autism, once mystifying and attributed to the "refrigerator mother," i.e. failure of maternal-neonatal relationship, is now identified with injury to the developing brain. The diagnosis is based on: 1) lack of language development; 2) lack of social interaction; 3) stereotyped and repetitive behaviors. The language impairment ranges from total lack of words to spotty use of words and phrases. These children often respond when spoken to but are unable to organize their thoughts well enough to answer back. Recovered autistics have described the experience as one of confusion. The social impairment presents as lack of eye contact, lack of facial expression, lack of ability to play, and inability to interact meaningfully with others. Stereotyped behaviors include rituals, hand flapping, body movements, head banging and bizarre and selective preoccupation with objects.

Researchers have conjectured that autism is due to brain injury; however proof has been elusive, that is most cases do not display cell damage and infiltrates typical of either viral disease or immune reaction in the brain. On the other hand, viral infection has long been recognized as a cause of encephalitis and prenatal rubella (in the mother), post-natal measles, mumps, german measles, chickenpox, and other viruses (in the baby) are known to cause autism, ADHD, and a spectrum of delayed neurological and psychological disorders, including multiple sclerosis, delinquency, criminality, addiction, schizophrenia, and depression.

Studies of thalidomide casualties have shown us that failure of cerebellar development occurs as a consequence of chemical and viral damage in the third week after conception. I have observed two such cases in my own practice, one after Zovirax for a herpes outbreak, another following use of amoxicillin for strep throat. It is likely that damage was caused by the virus that caused the symptoms at the time. These are, of course, anecdotal reports but the most credible aspect is the timing of viral and chemical exposure: 19th to 21st day after conception.

In recent years an increasing number of cases of autism have been linked to vaccine reactions, and chronic ear and sinus infections. The neuro-toxic effects of pertussis vaccine are so well known as to require little comment. Delaying immunization reduces adverse reactions. In Japan after 1979 the public health policy was changed; the routine first year DTP vacination was halted and all immunizations were delayed until age 24 months. The number of cases of SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome) was cut in half.

Autism and other developmental neurological disorders have increased to epidemic proportions in the past ten years, running the range of severity from pervasive developmental disorder and autism, to the less severe categories, including ADHD and other learning disorders. While text-books attempt to separate these various diagnostic syndromes, the fact that all have increased at the same time suggests the possibility that there is an environmental factor.

A recent paper by Dr. Stephen Edelson explores the question of environmental pollution . Twenty children (average age 6.35 years) were studied by laboratory testing, including: 1) glucaric acid analysis (a marker for increased detoxification), 2) blood analysis for solvents and pesticides, and 3) liver detoxification products. Results were significant as follows: All 20 cases had elevated glucaric acid. All cases had abnormal liver detoxification profiles. Elevated levels of toxic chemicals from 1.5 to 100 times normal were found in 16 of 18 cases. Trimethylbenzene was most frequent but it did not correlate with glucaric acid results, which therefore must have been caused by something else. Methylpentane, xylene, styrene, toluene, and benzene were also found in these patients.

The authors conclude that prenatal exposure to unnatural chemicals is the most likely cause of autism, and, based on the finding of glucaric acid abnormalities in all subjects, they also propose genetic impairment of fetal and neonatal detoxification processes as a mechanism whereby normally tolerable exposure to xenobiotics causes major neurological damage in those who develop autism. This study is important not only for its findings but because it is more thorough in its method of testing than other studies of autistic children. A weakness of the study, however, is the lack of data from a group of healthy children for comparison.

The same limitations apply to my own observations of the approximately 50 autistic children in my practice. There are suggestive histories that point to recurrent otitis or sinusitis and repeated antibiotic treatment as risk factors for neurological problems. Are antibiotics dangerous? Do they induce serious bowel disorders? Or do the infections, themselves, interfere with brain development. For example, otitis is a fairly common source of infection with tetanus! The Clostridium tetani organisms can thrive in the anaerobic environment of the middle ear and the toxin produced by this microbe produces is neurotoxic. It is plausible to consider this a potential cause of developmental brain disease. One of the most effective treatments is external application of ozone to the ear canals and I know of at least one case that improved dramatically after such a treatment.

Our epidemic of autism and ADHD also coincides with the introduction of a new vaccine against measles in 1988. This vaccine contains a weakened but live virus, a mutant strain. It is usually given with two other live virus vaccines, mumps and rubella (german measles), hence it is abbreviated MMR. The vaccine is now administered to almost all children at age 15 to 18 months, with booster doses 3 months later and again upon starting school. Measles has almost disappeared in the USA since 1900 and the credit is usually given to vaccination. However, Dr. Leon Chaitow relates that the measles death rate dropped from 13 per 100,000 in 1900 to 0.03 per 100,000 in 1955—before measles vaccination arrived. In 1958 there were still about 800,000 cases per year but in 1962 this had dropped to 300,000. The vaccine arrived in 1963. In 1978 a survey of 30 states found that half the cases of measles were found in children that had been vaccinated. The vaccine failure rate has been reported at 20 to 30 percent, which is to say that about one out of four children are not protected by measles vaccine anyway.

Nevertheless, it seems almost ungrateful to suspect that vaccination, which clearly can do much good, can also cause harm. But it is an accepted fact that all drugs have adverse effects. So the real question is "how much damage?" The answer is: no one knows for sure. There have not been adequate follow-up studies and almost no long term studies to explain possible delayed adverse effects, such as colitis, cancer, schizophrenia and multiple sclerosis. But there is reason to suspect that the increased incidence of autism and ADD may be related to mass vaccination programs. If so, it is not far-fetched to suggest that our present crisis in education, low SAT scores, school drop-outs, and high crime and addiction rates, might also be due to vaccine-related developmental brain disease.

Let us consider the findings of Drs. Wakefield and Walker-Smith of the Royal Free Hospital in London, England. They carefully studied 40 autistic (pervasive developmental disorder) children and reported finding live measles virus in the intestinal tract of most of them. They also reported that the parents of these children gave a history with a common theme: the children were developing normally, many already speaking in short sentences, then regressed and lost speech a week or two after vaccination with MMR vaccine at 15-18 months. In a more recent paper they retracted their finding of live virus; but they cannot erase the fact that many parents have observed this sequence of events and a number are, in fact, now engaged in a lawsuit over MMR vaccine safety in England.

Does it seem reasonable to persist in a mass vaccination program that is clouded by casualty reports? Is measles such a dangerous disease that we must vaccinate regardless of the risk of autism and learning disability? Is measles really a dangerous disease? Yes, but only in sickly and malnourished children, such as those living in poverty-stricken conditions and especially in 3rd world nations. But researchers, such as Sommers and Hussey have gathered convincing evidence that treatment with vitamin A, retinol, offers almost complete protection from the serious, complications of measles, i.e. pneumonia, encephalitis, and death. Results might be even better with more complete nutritional support, including dietary balance and supplemental zinc and antioxidants. Such research is needed to answer such questions.

Dr. Alfred Sommers travelled extensively in Southeast Asia, visiting villages, treating some children with vitamin A, passing over others. Return visits just a few months later gave convincing evidence: those who received vitamin A were alive and well, even if they had contracted measles. There were no deaths. On the other hand, those who were not treated with vitamin A had a death rate of about 10 percent!

Vitamin A is crucial in prevention of autism:

It is obvious from the foregoing that vitamin A functions as an anti-viral agent, especially against childhood viruses. But there are other attributes of this vitamin that deserve mention. One of the functions of vitamin A (retinol) is its role in sulfation, one of the major detoxification steps of the body. Vitamin A is essential for growth and repair, healing, so it is important in recovery from illness. And vitamin A has a beneficial effect on the brain, particularly in the auditory cortex, believed to be impaired in autism, inasmuch as disturbance of speech and language skills is a central feature of the disorder. A study in rats found vitamin A deficiency increases sensitivity of the inner ear to noise as well as susceptibility to noise-induced hearing loss. This is reminiscent of the irritability so often reported by parents of autistic children. In many cases the children literally cover their ears with their hands to shut out sound. Experimental evidence shows that the sensitivity to noise is caused by degeneration of the tight junctions of the cells surrounding the cochlear duct. These normally form an endolymph-perilylmph barrier that prevents the potassium rich endolymph from entering the base of the hair cells and unmyelinated nerve fibers. The perilymph, which surrounds the hair cells, is low potassium, but noise exposure increases the permeability of the barrier cells and permits influx of potassium. This causes a threshold shift of the hair cells due to depolarization ,and the results of this intoxication can be permanent.

Vitamin A is vital to development, repair and integrity of the the inner ear. The vitamin protects against ototoxic effects of antibiotics of aminoglycoside type (e..g. Kanamycin, Neomycin) but as a rule antibiotics shouldn’t be given for otitis until vitamin A treatment has had a chance to heal and restore resistance to infection of the affected tissues. In fact, otitis is often a clinical sign of vitamin A deficiency in children. Hyperkeratosis, thickening of the epithelial linings, is one of the early signs of deficiency as the epithelial cells of the inner ear are quite vitamin A dependent.

However vitamin A has an effect on neurons in the auditory areas as well. The above-mentioned study in rats found that vitamin A deficiency causes leaky membranes and altered cochlear potentials. In humans, prolonged vitamin A deficiency was studied by Hume and Krebs, who found a reduction in hearing after 15 months on a vitamin A deficient diet in 3 of 5 volunteers. Hearing loss is also reported in diseases with low vitamin A levels. Evidently irritability is an early sign of vitamin A deficiency and nerve damage occurs if deficiency is prolonged.

Selenium deficiency and autism

Does selenium deficiency play a role in this heart-breaking malady, in which seemingly healthy children are "kidnapped" by a mysterious agent which causes a sudden loss of language and learning between 15 and 30 months of age. The afflicted children often lose speech within a week of the MMR vaccination and become regressive and withdrawn, unable to learn or even to pay attention, unable to play normally. They are fussy, have tantrums provoked by the least change in their accustomed routines, such as placement of objects in the room, or time of day of events. They are unsafe, wander about in the middle of the night, have little appreciation for the consequences of their acts, and often don't get much better despite heroic attempts at therapy. Let's qualify that: structured learning on a behavioristic reinforcement model (Lovaas) has proven beneficial. So has simple task learning, such as crawling, sound training and sight training with prisms, which seem to capture attention and give the child some cause and effect relation to the environment. .

My own experience also suggests that the role of selenium is important. In the first place, some of my patients have improved noticeably upon supplementation with selenium. I have not seen a study that actually accounts for selenium status of autistic children however. Measurement of selenium in red blood cells and hair would be a good place to start and additional testing of the selenium dependent enzyme, glutathione peroxidase, would be confirmatory, one way or the other. However we do know that:

  1. Selenium deficiency is common in mothers, so even mother's milk can be deficient.

  2. Acid foods make selenium insoluble, so babies regularly fed fruit juices are liable to malabsorption of selenium.

  3. Fluoride forms insoluble complexes with selenium. Since selenium is strongly electropositive, it combines with fluoride preferentially, with even greater avidity than calcium, magnesium, iron, zinc, sodium, potassium. The total adult body content of selenium is less than 100 mg, so little as to be vulnerable to sodium fluoride intakes of 3 to 5 mg per day, which are usual in this country because of fluoridation and fluoridated toothpaste. Consider that vital trace minerals, such as selenium, chromium and molybdenum, are ingested on average only about 50 mcg per day. Fluoride intake is 100 times more and fluoride complexes are likely to inactivate these trace minerals by rendering them insoluble—even in the presence of calcium, magnesium, boron or aluminum salts, which also bind with fluoride. Sodium fluoride, the relatively soluble fluoride used in water fluoridation, preferentially binds to the trace minerals, selenium and chromium.

Some viruses interact with cells to increase the production of glutathione and other selenium-binding proteins that further deplete selenium, thus creating a vicious circle of virulence. The more cells are infected, the more selenium is depleted. That can be fatal. For example: Ebola virus kills 4 out of 10 of its victims. However in the presence of selenium supplementation the fatality rate drops by over 80 percent. That is a persuasive demonstration of the anti-viral power of this essential mineral. A similar phenomenon has been recognized and reported in AIDS. It is reasonable to say that selenium increases our resistance to viral disease. Variable immune deficiency is a common feature in autistic children.

If mineral deficiency does factor into the autism puzzle, is it reasonable to accept that it could elude detection in millions of and escape detection as a cause of the remarkable increase in autism, ADD and other forms of learning disability? I say the answer is almost certain to be yes, and both magnesium and selenium deficiency are suspect. The role of magnesium in autism has already been verified by the well-known double-blind research trials conducted by Rimland, and Callaway in the 1970s and Martineau, Garreau, Barthelemy and Lelord in the 1980s.

Here are a few speculations to pull the various observations together.

Dietary selenium is deficient due to lack of high selenium foods, in turn related to depletion of soils, which is caused by acid rain which makes selenium insoluble so it washes ou of the soil rather than being taken up by plants. Furthermore, widespread fluoridation of water and processed foods also renders selenium insoluble. When viral infections strike, further depletion occurs, which can interfere with antioxidant defenses, immune mechanisms, and energy regulation. A vicious circle of immune deficiency, chemical sensitivity, and chronic viral infection and fatigue is thus induced.

To be continued...

©2000 Richard A. Kunin, M.D.