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Can autism be prevented?

According to the CDC, one in 88 children have been identified as having an autism spectrum disorder.

The statistic rates used to be one in 150 – so how did we get these new numbers?  Dr. Rober Melillo, co-founder of the Brain Balance Achievement Centers, spoke with Dr. Manny Alvarez, senior managing health editor for FoxNews.com, about the science behind autism, as well the facts and myths surrounding the condition.

Melillo said that while the current numbers are staggering, it’s quite possible the rates are even higher.

“It's an epidemic at this point, and we are seeing significant increases, which means that the only way you can explain it is through environmental factors,” Melillo said. “There is no such thing as a genetic epidemic; it takes a lot longer for genes to cause this type of rise.”

However, Melillo does believe that autism is often a result of environmental factors combined with genetic predisposition.  The most potent lifestyle factors are diet and exercise and inflammation in the body.

Fortunately, Melillo identified numerous preventative measures parents can take to better ensure their child will not be born with autism. All of these measures are included in his book, Autism: The Scientific Truth About Preventing, Diagnosing, and Treating Autism Spectrum Disorder -- and What Parents Can Do Now.

“One of the things that we looked at are things like… pre-natal vitamins,” Melillo said.  “Taking pre-natal vitamins three months before and for the first month of pregnancy lowers the risk of having a child with autism by 60 percent.”

Conditions such as obesity, diabetes or hypertension in the mother can also increase the risk of autism by 60 percent.

When it comes to autism diagnosis, Melillo said it’s important for physicians and parents to understand that autism is essentially an imbalance in the brain.  Knowing the degree and type of imbalance will ultimately lead to more individualized treatment.

“Each child is different, and they have a different make up of strengths and weaknesses,” Melillo said, “and this is why these children with autism often have these unevenness of skills. They have these incredible memory skills or musical skills, but yet they have very poor social skills or non-verbal communication.”

There are a number of myths surrounding autism, Melillo said – the main one being that it is a purely genetic disorder.  Another myth is that children with autism never get better and cannot be helped.  These two mindsets are unproven, according to Melillo.

As for where the future of autism research is going, he said it will delve more into the mechanisms behind the disorder.

“I think it's going to go towards understanding what is really happening,” Melillo said, “and understanding how the brain regulates the body. You know, people don't realize that the brain regulates the immune system, your digestive system.  Most food sensitivities and allergies and immune problems really start in the brain, and I think all of this is going to go towards understanding the brain, how the brain affects the body, how this can affect somebody you know before they are having a child, and how this is actually affecting the child.”