In the news this week a story has been just circulating about the fact that men aged 40 ” 49 (that includes me) are many times more likely to father autistic children than younger men. We’re unlikely to know what the mechanism is here, but what is good about this story is that it at least gets us thinking that it’s not the mother’s health status, but perhaps the father’s too, that helps to health of the pregnancy and subsequent child. Very often, we hear about the benefits of mothers getting adequate quantities of nutrients before and during pregnancy (two blogs this very week focused on this!), so I pleased that there is now an opportunity for the spotlight to shine more on the male of the species.
My personal belief is that the better nourished both mother and father are prior to conception, the less issues with fertility there are likely to be, and the better any pregnancy outcome is likely to be too. At the very least, men planning to have a child might want to take, in addition to a decent diet, a high quality multivitamin and mineral just to fill any nutritional holes that may be there.
This story, also reminded me that there seems to be increasing numbers of autistic children around. Whatever the precise cause of this, my belief is that we also need to focus on what can be done to help affected individuals. To this end, I’ve added here an article on a dietary approach to autism, which not only has some science behind it, but I’ve also found really quite useful in clinical practice.
Observer column – 21st March 2004
This month has seen a flurry of jabs and jibes aimed at Dr Andrew Wakefield – the lead author of the study published in 1998 that first suggested a link between MMR vaccination and autism. An alleged conflict of interest has instigated a call for Dr Wakefield’s work to be disregarded, on the back of which the Government and medical establishment have given renewed reassurances about the safety of MMR. Yet, some doctors and scientists continue to claim that the epidemiological studies that appear to put MMR in the clear do not rule out the possibility that the vaccine may lead to autism in a small subset of the population. It appears that a full six years after Dr Wakefield’s original paper, the definitive research that would provide immunity from doubts over MMR’s safety remains to be done. Until it is, I suspect the scepticism about MMR vaccination coming from some quarters will continue to needle politicians and doctors alike.
To my mind, it is also unfortunate that the cries for Dr Wakefield’s head seem to have drowned out the cries coming from parents desperate to get help for their autistic children. Many such parents face a daily struggle with a child who is withdrawn and will usually find communicating with others painfully difficult. To outsiders, children with autism often appear to dwell in an isolated world, and one that is largely their own. Whatever its cause, there is little doubt that autism has the potential to have quite devastating effects on the lives of affected individuals and those around them.
While we may be in the dark about the precise underlying nature of autism, the endeavours of nutritional researchers has shed some light on potentially effective treatments for this condition. Evidence suggests that autistic children may lack the ability to properly digest dietary proteins such as gluten (found in wheat, oats, rye and barley) and casein (found in dairy products such as milk, cheese and yoghurt). Once absorbed into the body, these partially digested proteins (known as peptides) have the ability to exert effects on the brain similar to opiate drugs such as morphine. There is mounting evidence that the traits of autism may be the result of brain chemistry disruption due to these so-called ‘opioid-like peptides’.
Importantly, studies and reports published in the scientific literature show that a diet free from gluten and casein can be effective in reducing autistic behaviour and improving social and communication skills. Parents keen to try this dietary approach may include naturally gluten-free starches such as potato, corn and rice in their children’s diets. Specialist gluten-free foods (now generally available in many supermarkets and health food stores) are another option. As a casein-free diet will tend to be low on calcium, it is important that children get plenty of this mineral through non-dairy sources such as nuts, seeds, green leafy vegetables, calcium-fortified rice milk, sardines and tinned salmon.
Sardines and salmon, along with trout and mackerel, will also help provide children with the so-called omega-3 fats known to play a pivotal role in regularising brain function. While I am not aware of any studies that have tried omega-3 fats in autism, research exists which has found autistic children tend to be deficient in these crucially important fats. In practice, increased intake of omega-3 fats, and the removal of specific foods from the diet, can be a real shot in the arm for autistic children and their families.