In the autism world, parents are constantly dealing with protecting children from toxins. The detoxification processes of those with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) tend to be severely compromised. In combination with a leaky gut and weak blood brain barrier, the growing toxic burden leaves these children vulnerable to “brain allergies” or sensitivities that result in behavior that is even “more autistic.” In the immediate, exposure to toxins can make children with ASDs become obsessive, melt down, break out in a rash, get dark circles under their eyes, lose focus and ability to learn, write, do math, become hyperactive, aggressive, spaced out, or more. Over the long-term, it leads to chronic inflammation, altered immune function, attention deficits, and neurological dysfunction.
With the relatively new field of study of epigenetics, we now know that toxins can also turn the expression of genes on or off. It’s a notion that pulls the rug out from under the old genetics OR environment debate. There is so much evidence now that it is epigenetic changes due to toxic exposure (to the parent even before pregnancy or to the child in the womb or later) that set the stage for vulnerability for autism, and it seems like new studies are coming out every week showing autism incidence correlation to everything from exposure to car exhaust, to proximity to pesticide sprayed fields or mercury firing cola plants, to parental age, to EMF exposure, etc.
Conversely, we see so many children lose autistic characteristics with the aid of detoxification. Unloading some of that toxic burden can lead to incredible healing. Detox tends to be most effective when the source of toxins is removed, and the child’s own self healing ability to detox is promoted. Otherwise severe regression from re-exposure can result, or the child can simply plateau and not continue to make progress in their healing. In homeopathy, it’s called “obstacle to cure” — that exposure or event that blocks that body’s efforts to heal itself. I’ve seen it time and again. The child was improving until … “we got the new mattress,” “we moved near that industrial park,” “we started at that new school that has new wall-to-wall carpeting,” etc.
But what if the obstacle is toxic emotions?
According to the Center on the Developing Child (CDC) at Harvard University, stress becomes toxic when a child experiences strong, frequent, and /or prolonged adversity, without adequate adult support. For typical kids, that may involve emotional abuse, chronic neglect, exposure to violence, etc. However, for a child with autism, who may suffer from extreme and chronic anxiety because of a world so outside of his ability to control it and who may not reference or respond to adult reassurance in a typical manner, stress can indeed become a toxic factor. For a child with autism, every change in schedule or thwarted expectation can become a cause for an extreme stress response. The Harvard CDC states that strong, frequent or prolonged activation of the stress response systems can disrupt the development of brain architecture—altering the size and structure of neuronal development — and other organ systems, and increase the risk for stress-related disease and cognitive impairment, well into the adult years. In the child with autism, toxic stress can initiate a vicious cycle — inducing functional differences in learning, memory, and aspects of executive functioning, including a hyperactive or chronically activated stress response — causing increased potential for fear and anxiety which in turn contributes to future chronic stress. Inherent in this vicious cycle is the cascade of toxic stress response that results in increased levels of stress hormones which directly alter immune function and increase inflammatory markers.
In January 2012 the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement calling upon pediatricians to take a leadership role in developing innovative strategies to reduce the precipitants of toxic stress in young children. The policy statement was made in conjunction with the publication of a technical report that explained that, “Toxic stress can lead to potentially permanent changes in learning (linguistic, cognitive, and social emotional skills), behavior (adaptive versus maladaptive responses to future adversity), and physiology (a hyperresponsive or chronically activated stress response) and can cause physiologic disruptions that result in higher levels of stress related chronic diseases and increase the prevalence of unhealthy lifestyles that lead to widening health disparities.”
How to combat toxic stress in autism?
More and more parents are aware of the gut-brain connection, but many still ignore this mind-body connection so critical to overcoming the inflammation, immune reactions, and inability to physically detoxify that underlie so much of autism. I am a graduate of the Institute for Integrative Nutrition where we learn that nutrition involves more than what you find on your plate. “Primary foods” – healthy relationships, the joy of play and engagement — provide children with the positive energy that gives them happiness and satisfies their hunger for life. So often, the focus of autism therapy becomes intensive educational therapies that add even more stress to the mix.
Primary food for children with autism nourishes the ability to manage stress, to self-regulate, and to build stress buffering capacity as well as reassuring relationships. Of course, of critical importance is the elimination or minimization of any situations in the home or school environment that are contributing to toxic stress. I am often amazed that because a child is non-verbal, parents do not recognize that high levels of marital tension and parental feuding are bound to create chronic stress in the exposed child. The notion that a parent can hide extreme anxiety and depression from a child with autism is inevitably false. Such a parent needs help not only for him or herself, but for the child’s well being.
A parent(s) engaging in daily activities geared toward building positive, nurturing relationships while teaching children how to calm themselves and diffuse the stress response is a critical component of the autism healing journey. Therapies that focus on relationship building such as Relationship Development Intervention® and SonRise® help with the development of reassuring relationships, but I am speaking of a specific focus on stress management.
My friend, public school teacher Mona Schiebel found that doing yoga with her students with autism at the beginning of a day had a significant positive impact on their ability to focus and learn in the classroom. This past September the American Association of Occupational Therapists published a study confirming what she already knew– the use of daily classroomwide yoga interventions has a significant positive impact on key classroom behaviors among children with ASD. Another study from 2011 used multimodal yoga, dance, and music therapy based on the relaxation response to successfully treat behavioral and core features of autism. Many occupational therapists use the Alert Program® which teaches children to identify their level of stress and find sensory input techniques to calm or awaken their senses. Teachers and therapists know that teaching children with autism to identify emotions, and how to respond to those emotions helps to put them in control.
What I recommend is taking 5 minutes 5 times a day to do exercises that draw from stress management techniques such as yoga, meditation, deep breathing, massage, sensory calming activities, etc. as well as established techniques of self-regulation. These exercises are done by a parent together with the child to establish reassuring relational connections while teaching self-regulation skills. For example, one exercise involves teaching deep diaphragmatic breathing while counting to 10, in conjunction with saying soothing words together (or simply said by the parent, if the child is non-verbal). A poster with these calming phrases that can become the basis for a child’s own soothing “self-talk” and the numbers 1-10 with a picture beside each number of a child who is a bit calmer, helps visually oriented children to focus. “When I get upset, I can calm myself down. I count to ten as I take deep breaths. I can help myself to be calm again.”
In my view, this daily nourishment with primary food is an essential component of my Individualized Nutritional Program for autism, and it is as important a nutritional therapy as any changes we may make in the foods the child is eating. It nourishes our children’s own capacity to pursue the process of self-healing by overcoming what may be the most insidious toxin they encounter — toxic stress. Thus, we provide the most important nutrient for self-healing, the vitamin L(ove) that calms the mind, soothes the spirit and provides the positive energy for the healing journey.
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