Autism Linked to Immune Disorders – Including Celiac

A friend just emailed me a link to an article in the Sunday Times about Autism being caused by immune disorders such as Celiac Disease. It states that at least one-third of Autism (and “very likely more”) is caused by inflammatory diseases that start while in the mother’s womb. The more active a mother’s immune system is, the more likely a child is to be born with autism. And Celiac Disease can send an immune system into overdrive, causing severe inflammation.

So I found this article especially interesting for several personal reasons. First, I have to follow what some people call the “Autism” diet. My Celiac disease means I must avoid gluten (GF) and my casein allergy forces me to avoid all dairy (CF). So I’ve done a lot of research on a GFCF diet. Many parents of autistic children have found that strictly avoiding gluten and casein can to help lessen symptoms. From a personal “normal” adult perspective, I can completely see how being GFCF could help alleviate symptoms of Autism. When I have the tiniest bit of gluten, within an hour I feel what must be a chemical reaction taking place in my brain. First I become super-anxious (Chicken Little has nothing on me! Not only is the sky falling, but everyone’s going to get hurt or die – it’s a terrible, out of control feeling that no matter how many times I tell myself “it’s just a gluten reaction,” it still feels very, very real!). The next day my super-anxiety is coupled with a hair-trigger raging temper. Which is fun for the whole family. Then for days after gluten exposure, my mind is foggy, sluggish and unresponsive. Words are lost. Thoughts are abandoned mid-sentance. Many things are forgotten. It take about 5 days for the mental effects from a single particle of gluten to begin to clear my system and weeks before I can start to feel “normal” again. So I can only imagine how it must be for an autistic child if they’re having a similar reaction to the proteins of gluten and casein that they eat on a daily basis. Perhaps it’s similar to my cognitive disfunction but magnified to such a degree that it causes the much more drastic, impairing symptoms of Autism….

Secondly, my Celiac “kicked in” when I was pregnant, so I would have been a prime candidate for having an autistic child. The article states that according to a large Danish study (10 years and 700,000 births), women with Celiac Disease are three  and a half times more likely to have an autistic child!! Not twice as likely as someone without. Not twice as likely. But 3.5 times more likely to have an autistic child. Wow!! So I’m even more thankful for our little man now.

And finally, we have a nephew with Autism. I’ve always felt a rather special connection to him, but really never thought much about it. I always felt like we somehow have more in common than meets the eye. To most people, we look like an 18-year-old autistic boy and a (gulp) middle-aged woman. But I’ve always seemed to be able to “get” some of what and why things bother him. Not everything – no, not even close. But I’ve always kind of understood and been comfortable with him and his habits. So I’ve been interested in the theory that a GFCF lifestyle like mine might help him. And this article seems to suggest that we may have more things in common than I thought. If autism is indeed caused by inflammation brought on by an overactive immune response, perhaps my own gluten-induced overactive immune system (that causes swelling of my digestive system and brain) causes some not dissimilar symptoms in me (albeit decidedly to a lesser extent). I just wonder what would happen if my nephew and I followed the same strict gluten and casein free diet for a few weeks…. would there be a difference in his cognition too? I don’t know.

But a recent event really solidified the connection I’ve always felt to him. Last weekend I was accidentally contaminated at a large family party (where I brought all my pre-prepared homemade GFCF food and methodically washed my hands but STILL got “glutened”). I was experiencing the first throes of gluten-induced mental changes literally while walking around, following and watching over our Autistic nephew. And I tell ya, there must be something to this connection. While I’m sure every individual’s experience is different, I felt like I could honestly understand just a tiny little bit of the overstimulation that he must feel from the noise and energy of over 50 happy, loud people milling around in one house. Things like patterns in carpets are more visible, lights are brighter, sounds more sharp. If that bit of gluten could effect my brain the way it did, what must it be like for him?

As for the article’s postulation about introducing “domesticated” parasites into autistic systems… well, I’m not too sure what to make of that. Although I *am* a HUGE proponent of probiotics – which are, after all, living organisms that help balance our digestive systems. (And if you’re even contemplating a GFCF diet, I’d advise you to look into probiotic supplements – it was the final piece to my recovery puzzle). But the idea of taming my overactive immune response by “raising” worms from pigs to put into my sad little modern, white-bread (pun intended :)) digestive system, well… that seems a bit radical. But who knows?

Anyway. The article is a very interesting read. Check out the NY Times article here and let me know what you think.

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2 Responses to “Autism Linked to Immune Disorders – Including Celiac”

  1. Mary 01/01/2013 at 12:57 PM #

    There is one very disturbing error in this post. The author cites a well-known Danish study and says that mothers with Celiac disease are 350 times more likely to have an autistic child.

    That’s incorrect!! The study found celiac mothers are 350% – that is, 3.5 times – more likely to have an autistic child.

    So, yes, there is an increased likelihood, but nowhere near 350 times more likely.

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    • noi 01/01/2013 at 2:18 PM #

      Yikes! I totally spaced on that and did indeed have it incorrect. But I just fixed it and it should read correctly. Thanks for pointing that out Mary!!

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