Autism: An Emerging Epidemic

Dr. Miranda Wiley, ND

In medicine there is a saying that “Genetics load the gun, and the environment pulls the trigger.” Essentially, having a genetic predisposition to a disease or condition does not guarantee that it will develop, nor does not having a gene act as insurance against the disease. For example, not all women with the BRCA gene end up with breast cancer, and most breast cancer cases (~90%) develop in women who are negative for the BRCA gene.

So when a disease such as autism gains ground as quickly as it has it raises a number of questions and concerns about our internal and external environments. There does appear to be a genetic predisposition to developing autism, however, genes don’t change quickly enough to explain the rapid rise of autism in Western societies. But our environment has changed dramatically in the last century, and those changes have dovetailed into a perfect storm of environmental triggers that expose autistic traits in the genetically susceptible.

In less than 40 years autism rates have increased 10-fold, from 1/10,000 in 1970, to 1/5,000 in 1975, to the current 1/68. No one causative agent has been identified from genetics, potential toxins, or nutritional deficiencies, but practitioners who work with autistic patients find that there are some common imbalances that, once addressed, can have immensely positive effects on physical, mental, emotional, and social health.

Autopsies performed on autistic children who died in accidents found inflammation was present in almost all of their brains to some degree. How and why are their brains inflamed?

Altered gut flora with an excess of particular strains of yeast and bacteria has been associated with inflammation of the nerves, in particular in the brain, and with altered levels of neurotransmitters. Removal of food sensitivities can be profound for some people with autism, starting with a trial of a gluten-free and dairy-free diet. Improving digestive health is foundational to improving mental function!

Environmental toxins from heavy metals to pollutants in our foods, air, and water have also been linked to the development of autism. Unfortunately, each toxin is studied in isolation, rather than as a combined toxic burden, so the results are still unclear. One study from 2011 showed higher incidence of autism in children who lived near a highway at birth than those who lived on other roads. Those with autism may have difficulties with detoxification that in turn make them more vulnerable to toxins and inflammation.

Also common in autistic patients are nutrient deficiencies and imbalances. This may be due in part to poor absorption from pre-existing digestive issues, or an increased need for certain nutrients in detoxification that results in lowered levels in the body, or from a lack of specific nutrients in the diet. Enzymes are the work force behind all aspects of life, and particular enzymes require particular nutrients in order to perform effectively.

This biomedical approach to treating patients who are on the autism spectrum takes into account a vast array of imbalances that unite in the development of this disease. It is not a cookie-cutter approach, but one that truly assesses and addresses the needs of each individual in order to support their bodies to function optimally and allow their unique-ness to shine through as brightly as possible.


Bock, K., Stauth,C. Healing the New Childhood Epidemics: Autism, ADHD, Asthma, and Allergies. Ballantine Books, New York, 2007.