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What Causes Autism?

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What Causes Autism?
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There is much scientific debate about the apparent causes of autism and the increased number of cases in Qatar and around the world. We investigate the possible causes and latest research into this condition.

A recent study published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders (2015) revealed that the costs associated with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are set to double over the next 10 years, potentially reaching $1 trillion in the US alone by 2025. [1] The study revealed that “The current costs of ASD are more than double the combined costs of stroke and hypertension and on a par with the costs of diabetes.”

The root causes of autism spectrum disorders are definitely complex, and it is more than likely that many factors come into play. Genetics play a role in development of the brain but epigenetic research is clearly demonstrating that the immediate environment has a huge impact and actually results in genes being switched on and off — affecting every aspect of our DNA, disease states and lives in general.

There is no single cause of autism, and scientists are uncovering a selection of factors which increase the risk of the disorder. Boys appear to be 4 times more susceptible than girls and all races and social groups are equally affected.

Individuals under the autism spectrum have brains that develop differently. Specific chemicals in the brain (creatine, choline and N-acetylaspartate) cause the junctions (synapses) between nerve cells to mature abnormally.

Scientific Research

The latest research into possible causes has uncovered a wide variety of factors, most of which relate to the neo-natal environment and genetic make-up:

  • Flu during pregnancy doubles the risk of autism, say researchers from the University of Aarhus, Denmark, and a persistent fever of more than one week triples it.
  • Antibiotic use raises the risk slightly; although 98% of those who contract such illnesses and use antibiotics during pregnancy go on to have healthy babies, without autism.
  • A father’s age has also been implicated, since older men pass on more genetic mutations than older mothers.
  • The California Institute of Technology also points to a woman’s immune system, with over-activity contributing to autism-like behaviors in mice.
  • A pregnant woman’s exposure to particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide in pollution may be linked to autism development, report the University of Southern California and the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.

Prenatal Exposure to Toxins

During certain stages of development, the embryo is more prone to the effects of environmental toxins. Early exposure to harmful chemicals have already been linked to autism [2,3] and studies continue to show the damaging effects of prenatal exposure to toxins.

Chemicals can affect a developing fetus directly or through the genome by changing the DNA expression (how the DNA is ‘read’ and proteins are made), this is called epigenetics. Epigenetic factors can have positive effects, like taking folic acid to protect the baby’s central nervous system development. [4] They can also have negative effect, like the impact of toxins on neural development.

Environmental Toxins

Mount Sinai Hospital, founded in 1852, is one of the oldest and largest teaching hospitals in the United States. Their “Autism and Learning Disabilities Discovery and Prevention Project” launched in May 2010 to discover the environmental causes of autism and other learning disabilities, and to turn these scientific discoveries into evidence-based strategies for autism prevention. Their recent workshop entitled “Exploring the Environmental Causes of Autism and Learning Disabilities” produced a preliminary list, based on a small number of studies, of the most widely used chemicals found in the environment that are possibly causing developmental neurotoxicity. [5,6]


Embryos are 5 to 10 times more sensitive to methylmercury toxicity than adults. This metal is often found in fish. Many ocean fish contain high levels of selenium that binds to methylmercury. This creates a compound that the body can’t absorb. Certain species of fish that are high in this toxin, like swordfish and grouper, should be avoided. [7]

Organophosphate Pesticides

Babies that have high levels of this toxin in their umbilical cord blood have brains that are structurally different. The extent of this effect is unknown; parents and couples planning children should limit their exposure to pesticides by choosing organic foods whenever possible. [8,9]

Endocrine Disruptors

Bisphenol A, pharmaceutical drugs and pesticides are known endocrine disruptors. Plastic bottles, some food cans, detergents and cosmetics are some of the products that contain these toxins. Endocrine disruptors interfere with the organs of the endocrine system: thyroid, hypothalamus, pineal gland, and pituitary gland. These chemicals are the greatest threat during organ and nervous system development. Preparing fresh fruit and vegetables, using glass bottles for water and avoiding chemical laden cosmetics will help reduce exposure. [10]

Automotive Exhaust Fumes

Researchers are uncovering links between air pollution and a wide variety of diseases including a strong link to diabetes. [11] Some studies have already highlighted the danger of air pollution in the Middle East [12] but more research is needed to understand the long term impacts and find solutions. Seeking fresh air by the sea, reducing time in heavy traffic and consuming lots of fresh vegetables to support the body’s natural detox and antioxidant processes will reduce risk. [13]

Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs)

Over 100 different chemicals form a group of toxins called PAHs. They are formed during the incomplete burning of coal, oil, gas, garbage, and other organic substances like tobacco and meat. They are considered carcinogenic, but they are still used in some medicines. Reduce your exposure to all kinds of smoke, avoid charring meat and minimize your use of plastic for food storage. [14]

Brominated Flame Retardants (BFRs)

BFRs are used extensively in electronics, clothes, and furniture. [15] If you are purchasing new soft furnishings or clothes, allow time to air in a ventilated space before use or request retardant free options (without Scotchguard).

Per-fluorinated Compounds (PFCs)

Most people are exposed to PFCs through Teflon non-stick pans. Grease resistant food packaging, like pizza boxes and microwave popcorn bags, also use PFCs. The production, use and disposal of this toxin is unregulated [16] but you can keep yourself safe by using ceramic or steel cookware and avoiding fast foods — which also lack the nutrients which help protect you from damage!

What Can You Do?

Concerned parents-to-be and pregnant women should take action to reduce their exposure to harmful toxins:

  • General awareness during shopping can really help – always read labels.
  • Try to buy organic fruits and vegetables and avoid chemical laden processed and packaged food.
  • Replace plastic lunch boxes and food storage containers with ones made of glass.
  • When buying toys for your children, choose toys that are certified to be free from harmful compounds.

Protect yourself and your family by reading labels, learning more and becoming a conscious consumer.