Autism spectrum disorder is a developmental disorder that encompasses many previously delineated disorders. It is characterized by a deficit in social interaction, communication, and repetitive stereotyped behavior, interest, and activities. For some patients, diagnosis is made early. For others, diagnosis is difficult. Treatment is based on the individual. Some more recent research focuses on the microbiome and nutrition might point towards innovative treatment options.
Autism Spectrum Disorder Causes and Symptoms
Autism, as stated above, is a neurodevelopmental disorder in which people have difficulties processing social interactions and communications. The exact cause is unknown, but scientists believe it is partially genetic and partially due to environmental factors.
Symptoms are different based on each person. However, hallmarks include impaired social interaction and repetitive stereotyped behavior or interest. Social impairment includes reduced eye contact, reduced language skills, difficulty communicating, and difficulty understanding and communicating emotions. Stereotyped, repetitive behavior includes things like hand-wringing, clapping, and arms flapping. Stereotyped interests and activities could include an overly avid interest in a very specific subject, like certain modes of transportation.
Standard Treatment for Autism
Because people with ASD have very different symptoms, treatment needs to be based on each individual’s needs. Physicians approach treatment on multiple fronts. These fronts include behavioral management, patient and family education, family support and counseling, and medical treatment.
Behavioral management is exactly what it sounds like – literally helping patients and families manage patient behavior. Patient and family education helps with this endeavor; helping patients and families understand patient behavior helps them manage the behavior. Counseling and support is also a major part of this method of treatment. Sometimes, ASD can take a toll on both the patient and caregivers. Counseling provides support and helps families manage the emotional impact the disorder may have on them.
There are medical treatments as well to target very specific parts of the disorder. Medical treatment includes Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) to treat the repetitive stereotyped behavior and anxiety or depression, antipsychotic drugs for people who exhibit aggression and self-injury, and methylphenidate for people with ADHD.
Overview of the Microbiome
Bacteria and other microorganisms, like parasites, fungi, and viruses, are everywhere. They are all on the inside and outside of the human body. In a healthy person, they coexist peacefully. They even offer some benefits, like aiding digestion. Each person has an entirely unique set of microorganisms in their body. All of these microorganisms are referred to as the microbiome.
Scientists believe the microbiome starts forming as an infant, specifically as a baby is born through the birth canal, and then later through breast milk. At this point, the infant’s microbiome is based entirely on the mother’s own microbiome. As time passes, environmental exposures and diet change the microbiome.
There is newer research suggesting that some microbes in the microbiome are helpful to humans and some are harmful. The harmful ones promote disease and are therefore called pathogenic. Normally, helpful and pathogenic microbes can co-exist in the human body without causing problems. However, any type of disruption, like an infection, antibiotics, or diet issues, can upset that careful balance.
ASD and the Microbiome
People with autism often have gastrointestinal symptoms. These could include constipation or diarrhea, or difficulty eating certain foods. Researchers have found that people with autism have changes in both the gastrointestinal microbiome and permeability compared to neurotypical people. Increased intestinal permeability means that these patients may have issues digesting carbohydrates and absorbing other nutrients. Gluten-free, casein-free diets,
pre- and pro-biotic, and multivitamin supplementation have been tried in the literature. These alternative diets will be explored more in a later article.
One of the major factors that scientists believe plays a role in these gastrointestinal symptoms is the microbiome. In particular, people with autism have been found to have differences in their microbiomes compared to the microbiomes of neurotypical patients. There are many reasons this may be the case. First, autism is partially genetic, and the microbiome is also partly genetic. Additionally, patients with ASD have often been treated with antimicrobial therapy in the past to treat ear infections, a very common infection in young ASD patients.
Gut Treatment and ASD
As stated above, there are multiple alternative treatments and diets to help people with ASD manage their symptoms. Each of these diets is aimed at improving symptoms, with a secondary goal of improving the gut permeability that may be causing those symptoms. These studies are very complicated and beyond the scope of this article.
The microbiome is a new and exciting development in scientific research that is shaping how we view disease processes. Autism Spectrum disorder is just one of the conditions that could be diagnosed and treated using the framework of the microbiome. Contact the Stem Cell Transplant Institute today to learn more about ASD and how we can help you reach your health goals.