Autism is not necessarily a fixed life sentence, but rather a condition that can be improved, according to Dr. Martha Herbert, a neurology professor at Harvard Medical School and author of the book The Autism Revolution: Whole-Body Strategies for Making Life All It Can Be.
Herbert, who has researched thousands of children with autism spectrum disorders, argues that autism is not a handicap, and can even be ‘reversed’ to a certain extent.
“I think science is telling us autism is not a fixed life sentence because people improve – sometimes a little bit, and sometimes a lot, and sometimes they even stay improved,” Herbert said. “So we’re seeing a lot that’s changeable in autism.”
While the kids who suffer from autism can adapt naturally and become more independent as they grow older, Herbert said it is possible to make the change even more dramatic by putting in additional effort.
“You want to keep your child as healthy as possible; doing the best you can with food and doing the best you can with sleep,” Herbert said.
One of the principal tenets of Herbert’s argument is that children may begin with a genetic predisposition to autism in the womb – but the disorder can actually be triggered by environmental factors, such as being exposed to common toxins, eating too much junk food and developing chronic infections.
“Kids develop even in infancy all kinds of medical problems like ear infections or colic, and people say that’s OK, and then the kid turns into someone who’s autistic. What I think is we should be promoting as much wellness as we can, especially in kids who are high risk, as early as we can,” Herbert said, adding that ‘high-risk’ children are those who have a family history of autism or who develop infections frequently.
“I think it’s a snowball effect,” she said.
While autism may not be truly reversible, there are steps parents can take that have been linked to improvements in children living with the disorder. Earlier interventions typically work better, and in some cases, changing aspects of a child’s diet can also help. In her book, Herbert recommends a diet that is high in nutrients, antioxidants and fiber, and avoids processed foods, sugars and common triggers, like gluten.
“The way the brain acts is not just predetermined by a genetic blueprint,” Herbert said, but “actually a function of the health of your whole body.”