Autism and the Environment: Hand-in-Hand

In April each year, we mark two very special happenings: Autism Awareness Month and Earth Day. Both of these events date back to the 1970’s but little connection has been made between them until recently.

As I wrote last year, April is “filled with numerous events reminding us that autism is still more prevalent than ever, and that more families are still struggling with what’s frustratingly termed ‘the mystery of autism.’ To these families, autism is something they live with every day, not just one month a year, of course—but the increased focus is important.” Of course, this still holds true. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) announced that the prevalence of autism has jumped nearly 25 percent in a two-year period (comparing 2006 to 2008 data).  That’s 1 in 88 kids—1 in 49 in my home state of New Jersey—and a staggering 1 in 29 boys in NJ.  It’s quite probable that the 2012 numbers are even more alarming.  Once a year we pale when hearing these numbers, yet the only thing for certain is that the numbers keeping increasing.

Earth Day, in a similar sense, gets way too little attention on a daily basis for such an important issue. The health of our planet (and of the animals that are borrowing it) should be something on which we are constantly focused. For me, autism and the environment are two topics that pervade my work day after day after day.

If there’s a positive trend I’ve noticed this year, it is that more research is devoted to the cross-section of both concerns: environmental factors contributing to the rise in autism.  Toxins scientifically linked to autism include heavy metals (lead, mercury, arsenic, manganese), pesticides (organophosphates, DDT), and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).  At the Deirdre Imus Environmental Health Center at Hackensack UMC in New Jersey, we are completing a CDC-funded study looking at the relationship between autism diagnoses and household proximity to NJ DEP known contaminated sites. No one has championed this line of questioning more than pediatric neurologist Dr. Martha Herbert from Harvard Medical School. Dr. Herbert has long been one of the lone and loudest academic voices pleading for us to look at potential environmental autism triggers. Her new book, The Autism Revolution, is a refreshing, paradigm-changing view of autism as a whole-body condition, and she provides ample evidence supporting the role of the environment as a major contributing cause of autism.

But what to do about our environment? Another recent book, Richard Louv’s The Nature Principle, eloquently makes the case for why we, as humans, value and should want to protect our natural surroundings. Nature is an inherent part of who we are; and we literally will not survive without paying more attention to how we are affecting our planet.

The Nature Principle, according to the book’s introduction, is “about the power of living in nature—not with it, but in it. We are entering the most creative period in history. The twenty-first century will be the century of human restoration in the natural world.”  This concept of restoration—becoming well again—applies to our entire society, yes, but particularly to those most in need of restoration, our “unwell” children.  I am especially intrigued by part of an interview I found online with Mr. Louv regarding his first book, The Last Child in the Woods.

“Nature-deficit disorder is a term I use to describe the human costs of alienation from nature. Among them: diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses…. Our culture increasingly suffers from ‘cultural autism’: tunneled senses, feelings of isolation and containment.”

The highlight is mine. The parallels are unmistakable. Those with autism display the same differences as those with “nature-deficit disorder” (not a real medical condition, but a useful concept). Mr. Louv is urging us to heal by reconnecting with our natural surroundings, to become wholly part of the world in which we live. We have numerous anecdotal reports of autistic children experiencing remarkable breakthroughs while immersed in nature. I’ve previously profiled the healing power of hippotherapy and the story of one autistic boy helped by riding horses with native healers in Mongolia. Are these experiences generalizable? Could it be that both the cause and treatment for the epidemic of neurodevelopmental disorders plaguing our children will be found in nature? We have to be brave enough to ask these questions and determined enough to find the answers.

Each year in April, for a brief speck of time, we are prodded to renew our commitment to the Earth and to refocus on helping autistic children and their families. I implore us all to remember these vows each and every day. Some things are just too important; they deserve our full and persistent attention.

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