Autism: The Autoimmune Connection

FotoFlexer_PhotoautieLong believed to be a behavioral disorder, autism is much more to those living with it.  It affects sensory perception, social skills and communication–the very things that make us human.  The behavioral symptoms are merely the tip of a giant iceberg that’s been largely ignored by mainstream psychiatry.  Unlike depression and other so-called “mental” illnesses, autism is considered a developmental disorder with a real organic basis, which is fortunate.

Rarely do autistic people NOT have other co-morbid health problems.  Epilepsy, bowel disorders, Tourette’s syndrome, immune irregularities, allergies and autoimmune diseases like Crohn’s and Type I diabetes frequently accompany autism.

Many parents report the onset of autism in their kids following an acute infection or vaccine.  This makes sense when viewed from an immunological standpoint.  There are currently over 100  recognized autoimmune disorders, including multiple sclerosis, lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.  But these are physical diseases that don’t affect mood and behavior…

…or do they?

One clear example of mental illness caused by autoimmune disease is the strange disorder known as PANDAS (Pediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorders Associated with Streptococcal infections).  In PANDAS, a common strep infection causes the immune system to erroneously attack basal ganglia cells in the brain, resulting in obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Symptoms of PANDAS–which may also include tics, anxiety, restricted food intake and emotional lability–come on rapidly and may persist long after the infection has been treated, suggesting chronic immune involvement.

Why is it such a leap, then, to believe that autism could have similar immunological origins?  Throughout history, countless theories have been posited about the cause of autism, many of which were downright harmful.  The idea that bad parenting (“refrigerator mothers“) caused autism persisted through the 1960s, resulting in many children being placed in foster homes.  Virtually every other Freudian psychoanalytical approach also failed miserably.

We now know there’s a strong genetic basis for autism, but that’s only half the picture.  It is not a purely inherited disease like Huntington’s that can be predicted with genetic testing, so there must be other co-factors involved.

But what are they?

If autism is like most other chronic illnesses, it has no singular cause.  In fact, it may not even be one single DISORDER.  It presents differently in each child and may range in severity from mild to debilitating.  Some kids appear to have symptoms from birth while others develop normally and suddenly “regress” around age 2.

A child’s immune system is grossly underdeveloped until about 12 months of age.  Viral or bacterial infections, toxins or an overload of vaccines in quick succession could trigger autoimmune disease in a minority of unlucky souls.  (The autism/vaccine link is particularly controversial because of the public health implications).

Pulling back the political veil, we see that vaccines have been directly implicated in autoimmune diseases like Guillain-Barre syndrome for decades.  Patients receiving the 1976 Swine Flu shot comprised the largest Guillain-Barre “outbreak” in history.  Epilepsy, “regressive encephalopathy” (autism by another name?), narcolepsy and other brain diseases are rare but well-documented complications of vaccines.

If immune dysfunction can trigger this multitude of brain disorders, it begs the question:

Why NOT autism?

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2 Responses to Autism: The Autoimmune Connection

  1. Ross Coe says:

    Here’s something that’s a must read, from the National Institute of Health http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3364648

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