Understanding Autism

Understanding Autism

Julian Whitaker, MD

Paul was a happy, active baby. Although he was prone to colds and respiratory infections, he was healthy and normal in every way—until he received his 15-month booster shots. After that, things began to fall apart. He was plagued with serious intestinal and respiratory infections, eczema all over his body, and sleeping problems. Worst of all, he withdrew into his own impenetrable world. He no longer responded to his name or made eye contact. His language development stopped, and he rarely initiated any verbal or social interaction. Within two months, Paul was clearly autistic.

This heartbreaking scenario is disturbingly common. Thirty years ago, autism was rare, affecting only 1 in 2,500 (3 percent of all developmental disorders). Prevalence more than quadrupled during the 1990s alone, and by 1999, it had jumped to 1 per 285 (45 percent of such disorders). When you include milder forms of autism, 1 in 91 American kids are afflicted.

Some have doubted the veracity of these statistics, claiming it’s simply a matter of increased awareness and “diagnostic shifting” of speech disorders and mental retardation. However, a recent review of data by Johns Hopkins University researchers concluded that this epidemic of autism is real.

The ABCs of Autism

Autism is marked by impairments in language, behavior, and social skills. Children with autism have difficulty sustaining conversations or may not talk at all. They often develop an intense preoccupation with a single activity or subject and may engage in repetitive behaviors. They also have a hard time reading emotional states and interacting with others.

Severity ranges from near complete social withdrawal and mental retardation to much milder autistic spectrum disorders (ASD) such as Asperger’s syndrome, sometimes referred to as “little professor” or “geek” syndrome because, although those afflicted have autistic-like social and behavioral difficulties, they often have keen intelligence and verbal skills. In fact, it is estimated that up to 10 percent of people with autism are savants, highly gifted in specific areas.

These are people like Kim Peek, the inspiration for the title character in the movie Rain Man, who has memorized more than 7,600 books and can name the zip codes, area codes, and highways in every town in America. Or Daniel Tammet, who can recite pi to 22,514 decimal places and calculate cube roots in seconds. Or Leslie Lemke, a blind pianist who can play any composition flawlessly after hearing it only once. Yet for all of their accomplishments, these men are unable to work or live on their own.

What Causes Autism?

Nobody knows for sure what causes autism, but most researchers agree that it is triggered by an interplay between genes and environment. Some suspect a prenatal influence such as an immune system problem in pregnant women or exposure to drugs, viruses, or toxins that disrupt fetal development.

Others feel that the recent ten-fold increase in autism has to be caused by something children are exposed to after birth. Fifteen years ago, two in three cases of autism were present at birth. Today, three out of four develop normally until sometime between their first and second birthdays. These “late-onset” autistics hit all the usual milestones before they begin, sometimes abruptly, to regress.

The Prime Suspect

The number one suspect is childhood vaccinations. Many children, like Paul, are completely normal until they receive their 12-to-18-month booster shots. According to Mary Ann Block, DO, a Hurst, Texas, physician who has been treating autistic children for more than a decade, “Many parents have videos of their children taken before and after the vaccines, and a very real difference is clear. They go from being happy, connected children to slipping away into their own worlds.”

Here’s what Rep. Dan Burton had to say at a 2002 congressional hearing on vaccines. “My only grandson became autistic right before my eyes—shortly after receiving his federally-recommended and state-mandated vaccines. Without a full explanation of what was in the shots being given, my talkative, playful, outgoing, healthy grandson Christian was subjected to very high levels of mercury through his vaccines. He also received the MMR [measles, mumps, rubella] vaccine. Within a few days he was showing signs of autism.”

Our children are required to have a minimum of 21 vaccinations by the time they’re 18 months old, and several of them are given at one time. It may be that massive influx that causes harm, or it could be one particular virus such as the MMR vaccine, which has long been implicated in autism. However, the most likely candidate is thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative used in many vaccines. When children receive multiple vaccinations, they are exposed to as much as 41 times the safe upper limit of mercury.

Malevolent Mercury

Mercury is a potent neurotoxin. It also increases oxidative stress and reduces antioxidant levels as well as adversely affecting the metabolic pathways of compounds involved in detoxification. This explains why mercury toxicity can have such widespread effects, from the brain to the immune system to the gastrointestinal tract.

If mercury is so toxic, why don’t even more children develop autism? Because some are genetically more vulnerable to toxins. According to Dr. Block, virtually all of the autistic children she has tested lack one or more of the genes for glutathione-s-transferases, enzymes that play a key role in detoxification. Blood tests reveal they also have critically low levels of glutathione, a crucial antioxidant that binds to and rids the body of heavy metals, as well as problems with methylation, another process involved in detox. Their inborn impairments in clearing toxins make these genetically predisposed kids sitting ducks for the adverse effects of mercury and other toxins.

The FDA is finally phasing out thimerosal in pediatric vaccines, but for millions of children already suffering with autism, the damage has been done.

Autism Can Be Treated

I can only imagine how devastating it must be for the family of a child to receive a diagnosis of autism. But there is hope—if you search for alternatives other than drugs like Ritalin, Prozac, and Risperdal typically offered by conventional physicians. Not one of these drugs has been approved for use by children with autism, and they all have very serious side effects. Furthermore, according to a survey by the Autism Research Institute (ARI) involving thousands of autistic children, these drugs improve behavior in fewer than half of the children who take them, and they make things worse, both behaviorally and physically, in about the same number.

Alternative therapies, on the other hand, were found in the same survey to be equally effective, but they rarely cause problems. Let’s take a closer look at some of these options.

New Hope With Heavy Metal Detox

Autistic children should be tested for mercury and other heavy metals, and if levels are elevated, which they usually are, they should undergo a course of chelation. The most popular mercury chelators are transdermal and oral DMPS, and oral DMSA.

Many parents report remarkable results following chelation. In a study of 152 autistic patients using DMSA for at least six months, moderate improvement (improved but not normal, obvious language delay but using sentences, answering questions) was noted in 39 percent, marked improvement (mainstreamed into regular education, minimal or no language delay, normal social interaction and eye contact) in 36 percent, slight improvement in 15 percent, and no improvement in 10 percent.

In addition to chelation, special care should be taken to avoid exposing autistic children to environmental toxins, including those found in household cleaners, fertilizers, carpets, paints, building materials, and amalgam (mercury) dental fillings.

Nutrition to the Rescue

Many autistic children are plagued with gastrointestinal abnormalities such as imbalances in gut bacteria and leaky gut syndrome. This can lead to allergies that exacerbate physical and behavioral symptoms. The most common dietary allergens are casein, found in dairy products, and gluten, found in wheat, spelt, rye, barley, and oats. Studies show that eliminating these items from the diet usually leads to improvements in symptoms.

Sugar, artificial sweeteners, preservatives, coloring agents, and hydrogenated oils are also problematic and should be off limits. Avoidance of mercury-containing fish and eating only pesticide-free produce is also recommended.

Because these kids often have poor nutrition due to digestive problems and limited food choices, targeted nutritional supplementation is very important. In a recent study of autistic children, more than half were found to be deficient in vitamins A, B1, B3, B5, biotin, selenium, zinc, magnesium, essential amino acids, and omega-3 and omega-6 essential fatty acids. In addition to a good multivitamin and mineral supplement, positive results have been noted with additional vitamin B6, magnesium, dimethylglycine (which facilitates methylation), vitamin C, zinc, and fish oil, as well as digestive enzymes and probiotics.

Additional Therapies for Autism

Speech therapy and a range of sensory and behavioral interventions are also recommended, and the earlier they are started the better. Other effective yet overlooked therapies include glutathione and hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT).

As I mentioned earlier, glutathione is a crucial antioxidant and detoxifier that’s in short supply in autistic children. Levels can be increased by administering glutathione intravenously, through the skin, or with special oral preparations. HBOT, which involves breathing 100 percent oxygen in a pressurized chamber, is a highly effective treatment for brain and neurological disorders. Its popularity for autistic children is growing as parents report sometimes dramatic improvements in speech, behavior, and sociability.

“Paul Is Becoming a Kid Again”

I want to close by telling you the rest of Paul’s story. When he was three and a half years old, he began seeing Kenneth Bock, MD, who has treated close to a thousand autistic kids at the Rhinebeck Health Center in Rhinebeck, New York. Dr. Bock continued him on a casein- and gluten-free diet and added targeted nutritional supplements. He also treated Paul with IV glutathione and, because tests showed a huge heavy metal burden, chelation therapy. That’s when he really started making progress.

Today, Paul is seven. His language skills have returned, he can read, and he is doing well mainstreamed in a regular school. Although social interaction can still occasionally be a problem, he loves playing with his brother and other children. His mother says, “Paul is really becoming a kid again.”

Let’s spread the word: Autism can definitely be treated, it can largely be prevented, and, in some cases, it can be reversed.


  • Because autism and autistic spectrum disorders cover such a wide territory, there is no one-size-fits-all treatment plan. Therefore, it is important to work with a knowledgeable physician. A great place to go for more information, including referrals to doctors experienced in treating autism, is autismwebsite.com. You’ll learn about the Autism Research Institute (ARI), founded by Bernard Rimland, PhD, which has been on the cutting edge of autism research and treatment since 1967; and Defeat Autism Now! (DAN!), a group of physicians and scientists brought together by ARI to produce clinical guidelines for the assessment and drug-free treatment of autistic patients.
  • If you’d like to learn more about the safe, natural treatment of autism at the Whitaker Wellness Institute, contact a Patient Services Representative at (866) 944-8253 or click here.


  • Sullivan, MG. Higher prevalence of autism is real, expert says. Family Practice News. 2005 May 31:45.
  • Burton, D. Committee on Government Reform. The Status of Research into Vaccine Safety and Autism. 2002 June 19. FDA. Thimerosal in vaccines. 2005 March 21 www.fda.gov/cber/vaccine/thimerosal.htm#t1
  • James, JB et al. Advice for Parents of Young Autistic Children. Spring 2004. www.autismtoday.com/AdviceForParents.pdf
  • Kidd, PM. Autism, an extreme challenge to integrative medicine, part II. 2002;7(6):472-99.

Modified from Health & Healing with permission from Healthy Directions, LLC. Photocopying, reproduction, or quotation strictly prohibited without written permission from the publisher. To subscribe to Health & Healingclick here.

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