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A Historical Look AT The Causes of Autism

By Gail Gillingham Wylie

Autism Consulting Service


Over the sixty plus years that the medical community has defined autism as a developmental disability, the search for a specific cause has been a major focus of research.  In spite of the millions of dollars that have been spent and hours of work that have been carried out, no answer has been discovered. In January of 2005, a public lecture on this situation, delivered by Dr. Martha Herbert of the Harvard Medical School may explain why we are having so much difficulty with this search.


Throughout these years, a number of different causal theories have been not only suggested, but also supported by the medical community. The worst of these, of course, was the theory of cold parenting in which autism was assumed to be a direct result of cold parenting practices. Children were actually removed from their homes and institutionalized as pre-scholars in order to protect them from their families. Sadly this happened to thousands of children on the autism spectrum, with little change in their autistic symptoms.


In time the medical community determined that cold parenting had nothing to do with autism.

The current medical theory is that autism is caused by an abnormality in the brain. Again millions of dollars and hundreds of hours have been spent to find this “abnormality” with little success to date. Although there are lot of studies that claim to have found something, when one looks closely at the individual studies and at all the studies combined, one realizes that there is nothing significant to date to indicate that there is a specific abnormality found in everyone on the autism spectrum. Dr. Herbert’s lecture described in detail what we actually know from the research so far, as well as how much of the research to date contradicts itself. The only significant discoveries reported, that remain consistent,  in one study after another,  are that the brains of autistic subjects are larger, are heavier and are denser than the brains of typical subjects. This is likely due to the fact that they contain more mini columns and that these mini columns are smaller than those of the typical person, as discovered by researchers at the University of Georgia. These factors are not considered “abnormalities”, but instead differences.


Dr. Herbert concludes that we must recognize that autism is not a single syndrome, as such, but a multiple of different conditions, which express themselves in the same triad of symptoms: a qualitative impairment in social interaction, a qualitative impairment in communication and the uses of restrictive, repetitive and stereotypic behaviors, routines and interests. The direct cause for each case may be found in a combination of genetics and environmental factors through assaults to the gastrointestinal system, the immune system and through a variety of different toxins found in the environment. She suggests that research has to move away from concentrating on finding the “abnormality” in the brain based on the triad of symptoms if we are ever going to understand autism and know exactly what to do about it.


Although this has been the viewpoint of the DAN doctors (Defeat Autism Now), for the last decade, it is good to see that a prominent school of medical thought is finally going public with this viewpoint. Hopefully it will allow the general medical community to wake up and be willing to see autism in a new light. Our children need them to help in many different medical ways on this journey through life.

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