Martha Herbert, M.D.

New book, The Autism Revolution, offers hope, help for families

Autism. For decades, the word meant an immutable brain disorder, one determined solely by genes and that was only marginally responsive to therapies.

Today it is coming to mean something different and more manageable.

A growing body of research is dramatically changing the face and future of autism. In The Autism Revolution, a new book from Harvard Health Publications that I wrote with Karen Weintraub, I explain this hopeful evolution in autism science and offer practical strategies for families to help their children right now.

I’d like to share four of the most profound changes:

More than genes. Experts once argued that autism was purely a genetic disorder. Yet no one has found anything close to a genetic smoking gun when it comes to autism. Dozens of genes have been associated with autism, but all of them together account for less than 15-20% of diagnoses. Decades-old research suggested that identical twins almost always share identical autism diagnoses, but recent research shows that’s not true. Scientists are also learning more about possible environmental contributors to autism. We’ve long known that certain toxins were associated with autism, but a 2011 study showed that women who took prenatal vitamins before conceiving and in early pregnancy were less likely to have a child on the autism spectrum. Another found a link between antidepressant use during pregnancy and a child’s autism. Though there is reasonable debate about how much genes contribute to autism and how much the environment contributes, few experts today argue that genes are solely responsible for autism.

Beyond the brain. We’re discovering that autism is not just a brain disorder but a whole-body condition. Roughly 70% of kids with autism have digestive system problems. Children on the autism spectrum often have sleep problems and immune system troubles. Seizures are also common. Whatever autism “is,” it doesn’t affect just the brain. Science is showing many ways that brain and body deeply influence each other. Traditionally, parents have been encouraged to pursue therapies directed at their child’s brain and behavior issues. The family stories presented in The Autism Revolution suggest that treating these so-called ancillary symptoms can make a profound difference in the family’s life, and even in the autism itself.

Kids can improve. A lot. Autism may not necessarily be fixed for life. We simply cannot ignore the many stories of recovery. It is possible that some types of autism naturally improve with age, or that in some cases interventions can beat back many or most of autism’s symptoms. A study published earlier this year found that fully one-third of teenagers who had once been diagnosed on the spectrum no longer fit the diagnosis. It’s not clear how many of those teens were originally misdiagnosed, and how many had outgrown or been treated out of their autism. It’s important to note that those with the most physical challenges were least likely to get off the spectrum. Interestingly, many children on the autism spectrum show a significant improvement in their language and social skills when they run a fever. This hints at the possibility of change and the presence of a capable child inside of the “autism.” These studies and others suggest that autism may be a brain state rather than a form of permanent damage.

Autism does not equal intellectual deficits. It used to be thought that at least three-quarters of people with autism had significant cognitive impairment. But the latest research demonstrates that people on the autism spectrum often have typical—or even extraordinary—intelligence. Many struggle in showing what they know to the rest of us.

A growing body of science and clinical experience tells us that we have badly misjudged autism. But this work is also pointing us in new and promising directions. The new vision of autism offers great hope for scientifically-based paradigm shifts in our approach to this condition. The Autism Revolution offers ways parents can put these ideas into action today.

Dr. Martha Herbert is an assistant professor of neurology at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. The Autism Revolution is published by Ballantine Books and Harvard Health Publications. More information about the book is available at Harvard Health Publications’ website.

Related Information: Coping with Anxiety and Phobias

Comments:

  1. Anonymous

    The brain is very powerful, so I wouldn’t be surprised if all other symptoms are simply caused by brain. More scientists every day say how even allergies are triggered by brain

  2. Kevin G

    Have you heard about the breakthrough research involving a brain transplant of stem cells could offer hope for the treatment of both autism and Parkinson’s disease?

    The study is from Harvard University, has already proven successful with mice. Scientists transferred healthy stem cells from mouse embryos into the brains of adult mice who were unable to use leptin, a hormone that tells the body when to stop eating. You should check it out when you have a chance I think you’ll really like the article.

  3. nando eriawan

    good information, it’s really informative article. I’m sure the book also really useful for those who got autism. and I hope that harvard will publish an article about more update autism info

  4. kristiene

    My son was diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome in August of 2008. Since then I have been on a mission to learn all that I can about this challenge he has. I really hate using the term disability because, in my opinion, he is just different – not disabled. There has been a lot of discussion lately about whether to do away with the term Aspergers Syndrome and just use the Autism diagnosis instead. There are pros and cons to both but I am leaning towards no.
    my daily life with him http://www.angmoore.com

  5. Kathy Silverstein

    I like your focus on the whole body in treating autism. It is very clear to me that there is much else that is going on besides just the social and sensory deficits that we call autism. Gastrointestinal problems are so common with those with autism. What causes this? Maybe it’s a clue. Other comorbidities like ADD, OCD and Tourette’s are also very common. What does that tell us? Also, more studies of environmental influences on the development of autism that were not funded by special interest groups would be very helpful.

    I believe all body systems are interconnected, and if you help one, you can only be helping the other. I am a 28 year old with Asperger’s, and I like teaching others more about Asperger’s and autism. For those who want to learn more about Asperger’s, this is a site I have found useful http://www.aspergerssociety.org/articles/toc.htm

    I will look into the book.

  6. Roberto

    Congratulations excellent news

    • Alex

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  7. Janice

    Very interesting the educational process in the U.S. a shame that my country Brazil did not follow the same example.

  8. Jan

    Very informative and good writed

  9. Jelle

    Good article, very interesting.

  10. Andrew Estavan

    I am a 27 year old male and have a thick athletic build. In the past year since my child was born I put on some weight, not bad, about 25 pounds. For me this isn’t horrible, but I don’t like it. I’m 5’11″ and 235 at the moment, but as previously stated, I have quite a bit of muscle. I tend to be really comfortable from 200 to 210. I want to shed some excess weight. I have recently began my exercise routine but want to speed the process some. I have read some about Phen375 and am curious to hear some honest, un compensated reviews or advice on this product. I’m ready to get back to the old me again. Also, how do you feel about kettlebells? Thanks ahead of time!!!!!

  11. Tina Rigdon

    Is there not a study or several that show a link between autism and down syndrome? The share the same lack of sophistication and complexity in their actions.

    • George

      Tina,

      While they both include some form of deficiency, those deficiencies tend to be quite different between Autism and Downs…

      In fact, a person on the Autism spectrum may have near genius level intelligence in certain areas — but not be able to relate to you or hold a conversation that you would want to participate in…

  12. George

    I continue to be puzzeled by the fact that although at least 80% of all those diagnosed with autism are male, that researchers continue to ignore the obvious connection and keep looking for other causes…

    That is: Autism is quite obviously as much a male disease as breast cancer is a female disease. Testosterone creates the male and it affects the brain as well as the body. So why do both the medical and the research communites ignore that fact and continue to look elsewhere for the causes?

    Could it be that it is not politically correct to admit that sex hormones actually create differences — both postive and negative?

  13. germie

    Very informative read. Thanks for the effort in sharing this.

  14. Ivan Paunovic

    The brain is very powerful, so I wouldn’t be surprised if all other symptoms are simply caused by brain. More scientists every day say how even allergies are triggered by brain.

  15. What a great article, thank-you.