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Yesterday, I stumbled across this wonderful article in WBUR’s Common Health blog, with a book excerpt by Dr. Martha Herbert, who has been studying autism for 15 years or so. In it, she describes how some kids with autism have managed to be essentially cured of it, and how others have been helped to a manageable state using a variety of tools. This is a radical departure from what was previously thought about the disorder:

For decades, doctors have told parents that autism was a genetic problem in their child’s brain, and that it wasn’t going anywhere – that they should expect their toddler’s troubles would be with him/her forever. Autism has long been defined by its deficits, by what the child is believed unable to do: communicate, control himself, function like everyone else. Parents might make improvements around the edges – reduce the tantrums, limit the crazy behaviors, get the child to follow directions – but the essential deficits would remain.

But Herbert refused to believe this, given what she had seen: kids who previously couldn’t even speak growing up to be A students with many friends, or productive adults who just have “a few quirks,” or even remaining non-verbal but communicating beautifully through painting, music, or a computer keyboard. “The more I worked with my patients,” says Herbert, “the more I realized I had a choice: to ‘see what I believed,’ or to ‘believe what I see.'” What she saw frequently was astonishing improvement in certain cases, in particular when the patient was treated as a whole person, rather than just a defective brain. Herbert’s conclusion is that autism is “a problem of the whole body, including the brain, from molecules to cells, from organs to metabolism, from immune to digestive systems,” and that persistence in the belief that someone with autism can be brought to his or her full potential can effect dramatic improvements.

The strange part of reading this for me was receiving, the same day, an article from a friend detailing the finding of genetic deficits in young people with autism, and a greater understanding of the abnormal brain development that tends to lead to the disorder. The articles were literally published on the same day, and they made me think about the way medicine tends to approach these profound and poorly-understood problems.

My main worry, having seen the two articles, was as follows: on the one hand, here’s a Harvard neurologist who has treated children with autism for years, saying things like, “In all my research and reading, I have never found proof of the genes-hopelessly-mess-up-the-brain-for-life model of autism….I believe that autism is not a genetic tragedy, but an unfolding and unprecedented catastrophe, related to many other health and environmental crises. Our world is making us sick. We need to build a world that makes us healthy.” What a beautiful thought from the evidence-based scientific community; what a message of hope for parents, kids, and even doctors who are dealing with the rising incidence and seeming hopelessness of this disease! Yet on the very same day, an article on new findings in genetics research. “Until now,” the article at ICare4Autism.org states, “few studies have been able to investigate whole-genome gene expression and genotype variation in the brains of young patients with autism, especially in regions such as the prefrontal cortex that display the greatest growth abnormality.” While one finding doesn’t necessarily undermine the other, in a debate that has always been heated and rife with inaccuracies and hysteria, it would be easy to shoot down someone like Dr. Herbert – look, we’ve found the genetic cause and the brain abnormalities! You can stop all your crazy holistic nonsense now!

And yet it’s a holistic combination of factors that has been consistently shown to help kids with autism: dietary changes, environmental changes, and as Dr. Herbert says, a somewhat intangible thing called belief: the incredible patience and love of parents who can see the full potential of their children and are willing to do everything imaginable to try and fulfill it.

Both of these articles are excellent good news for people with autism and the people who love them: a pinning down of the underlying genetics on one hand, and a whole-body approach to management on the other. I just hope that as the hard science data slowly mounts, the efficacy of treating the whole person isn’t discounted.

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