Cleaning products, medicine, food—all can be found in pretty much any household. But as the composition of all three things has changed over the years, so have the rates of autism, ADD/ADHD, asthma and allergies—to the point that parents and physicians can’t help but wonder if there’s a connection.
Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) affect about one in 110 children in the United States, and the prevalence of developmental disabilities in children rose 17 percent between 1997 and 2008. There are many theories that attempt to explain their prevalence—some controversial. And for kids with allergies or asthma, finding the root of the problem may be as simple as examining their family history and genetics. If one parent has (or had) asthma, there’s a 50 to 75 percent chance the child will develop it.
“It’s not what we call a homogeneous disease,” says Dr. Sandra Gawchik, co-chief of allergy and immunology at Crozer-Chester Medical Center in Upland. “It’s heterogeneous, which means that not everyone who has asthma has it for the same reasons.”
One theory that’s gained some traction is the so-called hygiene hypothesis, which posits that our shift away from an agrarian society has created an environment lacking in infectious agents, microorganisms and parasites that previously led to the natural development of the immune system. “When you get infections or a parasite, you get an elevation of allergic immunoglobulin defense mechanisms that, when elevated, can play a role in protecting the body from future allergies or infections,” Gawchik says.
And a decrease in physical activity among children means muscle fibers in the lungs aren’t getting the workout necessary to maintain good pulmonary health. Vitamin D deficiency has also been thought to play a role in decreased lung function and increased asthma diagnoses.
The speculation surrounding possible causes of autism has prompted more intense debate. Most recently, an October 2011 report based on research conducted at the University of Pennsylvania found that it’s far more common in babies with low birth weight. And then there’s the much-publicized controversy surrounding vaccines and autism.
“It makes no logical sense that we’re looking at one child in 110 that has autism now, compared to one in 10,000 25-30 years ago,” says Jess Armine, a chiropractor and an autism specialist who practices functional medicine and neuro-endo-immunology at Integrative Family Healthcare in Havertown.
Acknowledging that the rise can be partially attributed to more accurate diagnoses in the wake of enhanced awareness, Armine is convinced that there’s more to it than that—and he references the advances in pharmacology during the same time frame.
Armine sides with a growing number of experts who believe environmental factors could play a role in the development of these disorders—namely vaccines and heavy-metal toxicity. And while a direct cause-and-effect relationship between vaccines and autism spectrum disorders has been scientifically debunked, Armine raises questions about such studies, echoing the sentiments of safe-vaccine proponents across the country.
“If you go to a parents’ meeting and say, ‘Raise your hand if your child just wasn’t your child anymore after their vaccine last week,’ 90 percent of the hands will go up,” he says. “Government-backed science will say that’s anecdotal evidence—and it is. There are a thousand different ways this spectrum is expressed, and it’s absolutely incorrect to not look at each case individually.”
The absence of double-blind, placebo-controlled studies has dealt a blow to the vaccine-ASD connection, as did an incident involving The Lancet, one of the world’s oldest, most respected medical journals. In 1998, it published a report from Andrew Wakefield, a former British surgeon and medical researcher who claimed that the common thread among those with autism and many other conditions was vaccine use. The study was deemed fraudulent and retracted last year.
“If they accepted it for publication, they must have believed it to be true,” says Armine, questioning the retraction. “It makes you wonder what pressures they were under to reverse their position.”
Armine believes money is at the root of the issue. “In our litigious society, rather than spend billions of dollars to make vaccines safer, it’s easier to say the conditions don’t exist or that there isn’t a direct cause,” he says.
Chemical dyes, processed foods, and proteins like gluten have been theorized as ASD triggers. It’s a relationship Armine explores through his practice, which examines how the body’s hormones and neurotransmitters work together with agents that alter or regulate the immune system, rather than as separate entities.
As for any direct connection between autism, ADD/ADHD, asthma and allergies, Gawchik, for her part, doesn’t see any plausible links in the research she’s reviewed. Even so, she says, “You can see how one would make the other worse. If they have allergies or asthma that go untreated, the ADD or autism becomes that much more unmanageable.”
• 10% of Pennsylvania kids ages 4-17 have ADHD
• 2-8% of siblings of those with an ASD also have one
• 51-91% of kids with an ASD had developmental issues before age 3
• 59% of American kids with asthma who’ve missed school because of an attack
• 10% of kids in fair to poor health have food allergies
• 4% of kids in very good to excellent health have food allergies