Autism and the Environment 101: Online Course 7

What is Causing the Rapidly Rising Rates of ASD?

The Centers for Disease Control has called autism a National Health Crisis. A disorder with a genetic cause would not be described as an epidemic. Rates would be expected to change in accordance with population rate, but our population increases do not approach the dramatic increase in the rates of autism diagnoses. As many as 1 in 68 births will be diagnosed with ASD; about a decade ago those numbers were 3-5 per 10,000.

What accounts for the rapidly rising incidence of ASD? Although there is still much research to be done in this area, current work suggests a link between environmental exposure to certain toxins (e.g., heavy metals such as mercury and lead, household plastics, and chemicals, such as pesticides), and the soaring rates of autism in our population. These environmental toxins are more prevalent today than they were in the past. Those with ASD, or at risk for ASD, may be especially vulnerable to these exposures. For example, many children at risk of developing autism may have a metabolic impairment (possibly genetic) that reduces their ability to metabolize and detoxify, so that they have trouble ridding their bodies of heavy metals and other toxins. Build-up of these toxins in the body can lead to brain and nervous system damage and developmental delays, and can chronically affect brain function and reduce health and well-being throughout life.

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