Autism Overview
Alternative Treatments
Behavioral Therapy
Mercury in Vaccines
U.S. Laws on Mercury in Vaccines

 
 


Autism Overview

What is Autism?

Autism is a bio-neurological developmental disability that affects a person’s behaviors. A spectrum disorder, it affects different individuals to different degrees and ways. Typically, autism appears before the age of three.

Autism generally impacts a person’s abilities to interact and communicate with other people. Individuals with autism can have difficulties with social activities and both verbal and non-verbal forms of communication. Although there is no cure for autism, its affects and symptoms can be improved with treatment and early intervention. It does not have any impact on life expectancy.

Rising Rates

According to a 2007 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the prevalence of autism in the United States is now 1 in every 150 children—and nearly 1 in every 94 boys. In the mid-1960s, the rate of autism was 4 in every 10,000 children. The alarming prevalence of autism can be attributed to a rise in its possible causes, such as exposure to environmental toxins. But the rising rates can also be pinned on a greater awareness regarding autism, as well as changing criteria for diagnosis.

Today, 1.5 million Americans have been diagnosed with autism. The Autism Society of America estimates that the cost of caring for an individual with autism over a lifetime is $3.5 to $5 million. Autism is diagnosed four times more often in boys than girls.

Causes and Effects

There are two basic theories about autism and it’s causes.  One theory is that autism is a genetic disorder.  This would imply that the prevalence of autism has remained unchanged, and that increases in rates are due to better diagnosis and a greater awareness of the disorder.

The other theory is that a genetic susceptibility, combined with an environmental trigger causes autism, which would explain why not all children exposed to the same toxins or other triggers develop autism. This theory also purports the increase in the rates of autism as due to an increase in external triggers.

There is no single known cause for autism, although a number of factors may account for its increasing prevalence. Many researchers believe that autism is characterized by abnormalities in brain function and structure. Some children appear to be abnormal from birth, which would link it to genetic or prenatal factors. However, many children develop normally, then regress at about 18 months of age.  About 25 to 30 percent of children with autism stop speaking after beginning to develop language. (2 )no specific gene trigger has yet been defined as one that may be responsible for autism.

Other possible causes for autism include environmental factors such as infectious diseases, metabolic imbalances and exposures to toxins. Research has indicated that many children with autism have a metabolic impairment that lessens their ability to metabolize and detoxify heavy metals and toxins like arsenic, lead and methylmercury, all of which are more present in today’s environment. An excess build-up of such toxins can lead to brain damage and other developmental delays.

Mercury, which is found in the vaccine preservative thiomersal, has also been proposed as a possible cause of autism. Scientific evidence that points to mercury as a direct cause for autism has not received the widespread attention as studies that find no link. However, there is a lack of research that definitively rules out the link between mercury and autism. While it is undeniable that mercury and other environmental toxins can have harmful affects on children, the vaccine-autism correlation remains a highly contested issue.

Sources

National Autism Association

Autism Society of America

Debate Over Autism-Vaccine Link Intensifies

Discover Magazine “Autism: It’s not just in the head”

Hansen RL, Ozonoff S, Krakowiak P et al. (2008). "Regression in autism: prevalence and associated factors in the CHARGE study". Ambul Pediatr 8 (1): 25–31

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Alternative Treatments for Autism

A commonly held belief among the mainstream medical establishment is that autism cannot be treated, although early intervention with behavioral therapy can help alleviate its symptoms. A variety of alternative and complementary treatments for autism do exist, offering options to the traditional view that autism is untreatable. Although these treatments have yet to be recognized by mainstream medicine, they are widely used by parents of children with autism.

Note: This is an overview of alternative treatments. These are not recommendations. Parents and caretakers should consult with health providers before taking on any of the options listed below. Check the links section of this site for additional resources. 

Vitamins and Supplements

Studies have shown that many people with autism have vitamin and mineral deficiencies. Supporters of nutritional therapies for autism believe that taking specific vitamins and supplements can provide more nutritional balance and help lessen symptoms of autism.

Methlycobalamin vitamin B-12 shots are one supplement given to children with autism. This type of vitamin is produced by bacteria in the colon and absorbed, but it is believed that people with autism are unable to naturally absorb B-12.   Methyl B-12 is essential for proper functioning of the methylation cycle creating glutathione, which helps with detoxification of heavy metals.

Other supplements used to treat autism include magnesium and vitamin B-6, as well as a variety of antioxidants.

Gluten and Casein Free Diet

Many children with autism also have gastrointestinal symptoms, food allergies and maldigestion issues. To relieve these problems, one form of diet therapy is to embark on a gluten and casein free diet, which involves removing all wheat and other grain proteins, or gluten, and milk proteins, or casein from the diet.

Autistic children may be unable to properly digest gluten and casein. Some researchers also believe that this inability to break down milk and wheat proteins in turn affects brain development and aggravates autistic symptoms. The Autistic Network for Dietary Intervention recommends that parents of autistic children try a gluten and casein free diet for a minimum of three months.

Chelation Therapy

Many children diagnosed with autism may be less able to make glutathione, which protects cells from toxins and helps the body to remove heavy metals. Chelation therapy uses chelating agents, in the form of oral drugs or topical creams, to help remove heavy metals from the body.

Before beginning chelation therapy, blood or urine tests can be performed to test for heavy metal poisoning. Chelation therapy should be done under the supervision of a doctor, and care must be taken to avoid removing necessary minerals from the body. As chelation therapy proceeds, periodic testing tracks the amount of toxins removed from the body.

Sources

National Autism Association

Autism Society of America

Treatments of Autism: Alternative and Innovative Therapies for Autistic Children

Autism Diva: Edinburgh Update

The GFCF Diet

Defeat Autism Now!

Dietary Autism Treatment Through a Gluten-Free, Casein-Free Diet

Generation Rescue

Discover Magazine “Autism: It’s not just in the head”

Elsevier: Thimerosal Neurotoxicity is Associated with Glutathione Depletion: Protection with Glutathione Precursors

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Behavioral Therapy

In treating autism, behavioral therapy can be very helpful, especially if done during early childhood. Because autism involves an inability to interact and communicate or a tendency towards repetitive behavior—such therapies can help to allay the symptoms of autism.

Behavioral therapy is used to teach learned behaviors, motor skills and social skills. There are several types of therapies, used both by trained professionals in educational programs and at home with family members.

Applied Behavioral Analysis
 

Applied Behavioral Analysis, or ABA, is the most well-known autism treatment. A 1999 U.S. Surgeon General report states that ABA is the most proven method for treating autism. ABA starts with “discrete trials,” a form of rewards-based intensive skill training. Rewards, or reinforcers, are given to children for eliciting the appropriate actions or behaviors. If a child does not comply with being asked to perform a specific behavior, he or she will not receive the reward, and the “trial” is repeated. Advanced forms of ABA involve practicing learned skills in more natural settings. ABA therapy is modified for the needs and abilities of each individual child.

Dr. Ivar Lovaas, a psychologist, first used ABA in 1987. Today, his Lovaas Institute is nearly synonymous with the treatment, which is often called “Lovaas.” Critics of ABA claim that it produces robotic, emotionless children, although the Institute counters that this is the result of improper training. ABA can also involve up to 40 hours per week of therapy, making it unaffordable for many families.

Floortime

A newer form of autism therapy is Floortime, which focuses on a more developmental approach to treatment. Also known as DIR (Developmental, Individual-Difference, Relationship-Based), the Floortime approach focuses on teaching children to master developmental milestones. It uses a combination of behavioral management, structured teaching and intensive work with both parents and therapists in a more natural environment to teach and use new skills. Proponents of this method believe that it goes beyond the reward-based system of ABA to address root developmental issues.

Floortime consists of a 20-to-30-minute period in which parents interact and play with their child. These interactions foster the building of emotional, intellectual, cognitive and interpersonal skills. Therapists and trained educators then work with the child, using  techniques based on Floortime principles. The DIR/Floortime approach fosters building interactions and relationships with parents and other family members as an important part of an autistic child’s treatment.

Integrating Techniques

In recent years, ABA has evolved to include a more developmental approach. Sessions are now more play-based and child-led. Today, as ABA and DIR methods have become less disparate and mutually exclusive, many families have integrated both techniques into their child’s treatment program. Floortime and ABA therapists can collaborate within a treatment session, tailoring their therapies for an individual child’s needs.

Sources:

National Autism Association

Autistic Disorder

LOVAAS Institute

About.com: Autism

Floortime Foundation

Healing Thresholds: Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon General—Executive Summary

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Mercury in Vaccines

Exposure to mercury, in the form of childhood vaccinations, has been suggested as a possible cause of autism. The role of mercury as a risk factor is not completely understood, but it has been proven that elevated mercury levels can affect brain development.

Thimerosal

Thimerosal, a mercury-based compound containing 49 percent ethyl mercury, is used as a preservative in vaccines. Although methyl mercury is a known toxin, not much is known about the affects of ethyl mercury. In the 1990s, the number of vaccines containing thimerosal increased, as autism rates skyrocketed. A study led by toxicologist Thomas Burbacher on monkeys found that although thimerosal was more quickly eliminated from the body than methyl mercury, it did leave greater deposits of inorganic mercury in the brain.

In 1999, when American children were receiving 22 immunizations by the age of seven, the U.S. Public Health Service and the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a joint statement that recommended that thimerosal be removed from all childhood vaccines as soon as possible. But even though many other countries had begun using mercury-free vaccines, the U.S. continued to use thimerosal in its vaccines for several more years.

The Center for Disease Control states that since 2001, “with the exception of some influenza (flu) vaccines, thimerosal is not used as a preservative in routinely recommended childhood vaccines.” By 2001, all vaccines recommended for U.S. children were also available in versions that did not contain thimerosal.  It is uncertain, however, when the last childhood vaccines with thimerosal were used, as there was no recall of the preservative. Despite the recommendation, autism rates continued to rise, which questioned the association between autism and mercury in vaccines.

The Truth?

Since 1991, when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Center for Disease Control (CDC) started recommending that three thimerosal-based vaccines be given to infants, autism rates have increased fifteen fold.

In 2000, an off-site meeting at the Simpsonwood conference center in Norcross, Georgia took place between federal officials from the FDA and CDC, as well as representatives from every large vaccine company in the U.S. The meeting was held to discuss preliminary results from a study a CDC epidemiologist was conducting where thimerosal appeared to be linked to autism and other neurological disorders in children.

Attendees at Simpsonwood were asked to keep the results of the meeting and study “embargoed.” Instead, the study was reworked, and the final version published in 2003 had neutral results; they could not prove nor disprove a conclusive link between autism and mercury in vaccines.

False Conclusions

After Simpsonwood, the government asked the Institute of Medicine (IOM), an independent organization, to further research the vaccine-autism link. The IOM, which had previously stated that and that it was biologically plausible that mercury in vaccines could be a trigger for autism, now publicly rejected the theory that thimerosal based vaccines caused autism. But not everyone supported these findings. In 2006, a panel of government-appointed experts claimed the approach taken by the CDC had "serious problems."

Critics of the IOM’s report said that the committee had played down the link between mercury and autism, taking efforts to purposely lose or declare data from the CDC’s Vaccine Safety Datalink Data Sharing off-limits. Both members of Congress and the public asked the CDC to make its vaccine database available, but only a handful of researchers have been able to gain access.

The Debate Continues

In January 2008 the California State Public Health Department published findings that the autism rate in children was still on the rise during a study done from 1995 and 2007. They concluded that autism rates should have dropped between 2004 to 2007, since thimerosal was no longer used in most vaccines after 2001.  

Clinicians, researchers, parents and organizations such as Autism Research Institute and Generation Rescue refute these findings. The New York Times blog Check Point, stated on March 4, 2008, that in spite of recent reports, “…the parent groups raising concerns about the dangers of vaccines have not wavered in their conviction, and if anything have become more skeptical of government pronouncements on the issue.”

Mercury in childhood vaccines is now banned in several states, however there have been problems implementing the bans due to shortages of mercury-free vaccines.

The debate rages on, because while some studies find a link between mercury in vaccines and autism, others refute the connection. Although mercury has been greatly reduced in childhood vaccines, thimerosal continues to be used in flu vaccines, in many over-the-counter medications and steroids, and in vaccines shipped abroad to poorer countries.

Sources

National Autism Association

Autism Society of America

The Center for Disease Control: Mercury and Vaccines (Thimerosal)

Debate Over Autism-Vaccine Link Intensifies

Rolling Stone: Deadly Immunity

The Age of Autism: “Problems” in CDC Data

The Columbia Journalism Review: Drug Test

New York Times: Study Finds Vaccine Preservative Is Not Linked to Risks of Autism

New York Times: CHECK POINT; Into the Fray Over the Cause of Autism

The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, Thimerosal Exposure in Pediatric Vaccines:  Feasibility of Studies Using the Vaccine Safety Datalink

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Laws on Mercury in Vaccines

With growing public awareness and more comprehensive research regarding the link between mercury-based vaccines and autism, legal steps have been taken to control the use of such vaccines. In the United States, legislation at both the federal and state levels has been proposed and enacted in order to limit mercury-containing vaccines.

State Legislation

In May 2004, Iowa became the first state to ban mercury in vaccines, followed six months later by California. Similar bans have since been enacted in Delaware, Illinois, New York, Missouri and Washington, and been filed or introduced in Kansas, Nebraska, West Virginia, Vermont, Florida, Kentucky, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Vermont, Massachusetts and Maryland.

Such legislation has varied from state to state. Some states ban mercury-containing vaccines for pregnant women and children under the age of three, others ban the vaccines for children under the age of eight. Some laws also prohibit insurance carriers from reimbursing patients for vaccines that contain thimerosal.

Laws limiting the use of mercury-based vaccines have remained controversial. In Hawaii, a bill to ban thimerosal in vaccines was passed by the state legislature in 2006, but later vetoed by the governor. In Illinois, a bill banning mercury vaccines was passed by the state legislature in 2005, but later suspended by the Department of Health.  As of 2008, each state banning mercury-containing vaccines has not been able to implement a ban due to shortages of mercury free flu vaccines. 

Federal Legislation

The Mercury-Free Vaccines Act of 2007, a national bill initially introduced in 2004 by Florida Representative Dave Weldon and New York Representative Carolyn Mahoney, would ban mercury-containing vaccines for children and pregnant women. The bill is still pending in the House of Representatives.

In 2006, Congress passed the Combating Autism Act. This bill called for an increase in autism research funding, including research on vaccines and mercury as well as spending for biomedical treatments.

In March 2008, a federal court conceded that an Atlanta, Georgia child developed autism from a childhood vaccine. Government health officials concluded that the girl and her family should be compensated from a special federal vaccine-injury fund. Created in 1986, the federal vaccine court has paid $750 million for vaccine injuries, but did not try an autism case until 2007. The U.S. government has not conceded that vaccines cause autism. 

Almost 5,000 families are currently seeking compensation for autism or other developmental disabilities that they claim were cause by thimerosal-based vaccines.

Sources:

CNN.com: Case Renews Debate on Vaccine-Autism Link

CBSNews.com: Vaccine-Autism Case Goes to Court

A-CHAMP

Iowa is First State to Ban Mercury

Safe Minds

Status of State and Federal Mercury Product Legislation

WashingtonWatch.com: H.R. 881, The Mercury-Free Vaccines Act of 2007

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