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My Common
Sense Approach
to Autism

Autism is a complex disorder with many inter-related initial causes and even more aggravating factors. Thus, any effective approach to dealing with the autism syndrome must address this complexity. Like negative synergy, the various inter- related components work together to not only cause the disorder initially, but also to adversely affect daily functioning, causing the disorder to be so very troublesome to all concerned, especially to the one with the disorder. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to autism, but only general guidelines based on the various factors.

By the time of birth, the interruption in development of the neocerebellum has already occurred, and no amount of wishing is going to change that. Then, aggravating factors such as toxins and complex organic compounds act to further lower the individual's maximum level of functioning. In time, the autistic brain does develop at a much steeper rate than what is otherwise expected, even to the point of almost catching up with its non-autistic counterpart. (1)

Thus, as the autistic individual gets older, coordination among the various areas of the brain improves, allowing for better attention shifting. However, the deficiency of Purkinje cells continues throughout life, apparently, leaving the individual vulnerable to repeated flooding of information picked up by the various senses. The frustration continues.

The sensible approach, then, would be threefold. First would be to increase the rate of development of the brain and immune system. Second would be to minimize those factors that adversely affect daily functioning. Third would be to lower the level of frustration by the individual.

I. Factors that Influence the Rate of Development

1. The Serotonin Connection

Many experts feel that an adequate supply of serotonin is vital for early brain development, as well as proper functioning throughout life; thus, a program of exercise early in life could possibly increase the rate of development for those who are developmentally delayed. (2)

One well-duplicated finding in autism research is the elevated serotonin levels found in blood cells, thus indicating a deficiency of this valuable chemical available for use in the brain. (3)

Thus, one component of this common sense approach would include the family of prescription drugs known as SSRI's, or Selective Serotonin Reuptake-Inhibitors.

2. The Amount of Physical Activity Connection

Several independent studies, including one done using autistic patients, confirm that prolonged physical exercise decreases the level of serotonin found in blood cells, thereby increasing it in the brain. The author of that study reported a significant decrease in negative behaviors as a result. (4)

To be effective, though, the vigorous playing should meet the same general guidelines as any other aerobic activity. (See for more information.)

II. Factors that Influence the Level of Functioning

1.The cranial pliability connection

It is not often that I support a therapy of any kind without having extensively tried it first, but such is the case with what is known as CranioSacral Therapy, or CST. Though the therapy has been around since the early 1900s, it wasn't until recently that the mechanism for it was even partially understood. Medical science knew the techniques worked, but not how or why. In early 1970, Dr. John Upledger discovered, quite by accident, that ordinarily the dura mater, the membrane encompassing the brain, is not only pliable, but actually moves around in a rhythmic manner. Dr. Upledger later noted that whenever this membrane ceased to be pliable, a variety of nervous system-related disorders and conditions would inevitably erupt. (5) Dr. Upledger also notes "the manual stretching of the restrictive dura mater by the use of CranioSacral Therapy techniques has provided impressive improvement in autism." (6)

Whenever I hear of a new therapy for autism, my first response is always to question why such an approach should work, given what we currently know of how the human body functions. After all, the body is a very logical set of machinery. I have also known that if there were three constants in autism, it would be (1) the core of the brain has suffered a setback in its development, and now must work to catch up with the rest of the body; (2) the autistic individual suffers high levels of stress on a constant, almost continuous basis; and (3) everything is inter-related. Obviously, the membrane would have to be quite pliable for this kind of development to occur. Like in any other kind of "office" setting, not much gets done when things get too cramped. The neocerebellum is hindered even further in its functioning, and the resulting frustration is expressed in terms of autism-related behaviors.

I also find it interesting that Dr. Upledger notes that stress frequently correlates with a lack of pliability in this same ever-so- valuable membrane. (7) Having autism myself, I have had to cope with high levels of stress my entire life. I treasure my ability to be high-functioning most of the time, but even that has its downside in that it makes me acutely aware of my sensory-related pain. I have noticed, throughout my childhood and teen years, a recurring tightness in my skull that always seemed to precede times when my sensory-related problems were at their worst. In all my years of searching for a way to cope, mostly by trial and error, one of the few things I found to really help lessen the sensory torture was to just stand in the shower and let the hot water beat down on the back of my head. Perhaps that was my own version of this kind of therapy. I never have understood why therapy should be expensive to be effective.

2.The yeast-turned-fungus connection

There are many inter-related aggravating factors that can make the disorder more troublesome for everyone involved. Some of these are simple to deal with, others are not. One such factor involves yeast overpopulation. Yeast is so much part of our living environment that virtually everyone comes into contact with it only moments following birth. Though its role in digestion is unknown, other than its ability to ferment sugar, it is ordinarily harmless. (8)

Science has long known that candida albicans, like most other yeasts, eventually changes forms as it matures, from being a more-or- less harmless yeast to a destructive fungus. It is thought that ordinarily the immune system, as well as other intestinal flora such as acidophilus, keeps the yeast colony in check. However, if the immune system is underdeveloped, or does not function properly any other reason, the yeast gets overpopulated, some of it maturing into fungus. In that form, it grows roots, puncturing the intestinal lining in the process. It is thought that these fissures would allow some foods, particular gluten, an opium-like protein found in wheat and barley, to get into the circulatory system only partially digested. (9)

Thus, one solution would be to modify the diet to exclude gluten and lactic acid, the worst offenders, to decrease intake of simple sugars. Candidiasis centers typically recommend biotin and acidophilus. (10)

3. Short Term Volume stress aka crowd noise, bright lights Connection

One factor, I term "volume stress, is when one is inundated with so much intricate detail or too many sources of related data for the brain to process very easily, and it also involves all the senses.

It is thought that the medical basis lies in the inability to adequately filter out information received through each of the senses. I think of my brain at such times of confusion as being like a freeway crowded with reckless and non-law abiding drivers, causing massive traffic jams. Why, mail trucks would have difficulty getting through in such a case, and so do my conscious thoughts.

In a crowded store, for instance, my brain seems to want to process what each person is saying, causing my mind to become dazed. In autistic children, this cognitive confusion often leads to use of poor judgment, aggression, echolalia, inappropriate laughter, social awkwardness, choppy sentences, and inattentiveness.

My senses would sometimes become dull to the point that I could not clearly see or hear, and the world around me would seemingly cease to exist. The sensory flow would seem to become confused as well. Oftentimes, I would be aware that my body hurt somewhere, but I would be unable to pinpoint what was hurting, even to the point of being unable to distinguish between whether the distress is kinesthetic or aural in nature.

I classify volume stress according to the sense involved. Auditory stress would involve crowd noise or multiple sources of sounds (such as when the TV is going, the stereo is playing, and people are talking concurrently.

So how does one cope? A preventive measure would be to mechanically limit the amount of sensory data coming in, i.e. sunglasses. Another coping method would be to allow for a period of sensory deprivation, thus giving the brain time to recuperate. An example of this would be a dark, quiet room.

Auditory stress would involve crowd noise or multiple sources of sounds (such as when the TV is going, the stereo is playing, and people are talking concurrently. To cope, I like to use foam ear plugs or rolled up cotton balls, especially if the noise is expected. Later, when I'm alone, I like to spend a few minutes alone relaxing in a quiet, unlighted room. (sensory deprivation)

Visual stress would be the result of lighting that is bright, particularly if there is considerable contrast. Personally, even the small amount of light during night time is often too much, and I typically wake up in the mornings with my eyes being tired and sore. Since lighting is so necessary for everyday activities, light-related stress is so subtle that often autistic individuals themselves may not realize this as a source of their frustration. Fluorescent bulbs compound this problem with their constant flickering, especially when the lighting is relatively bright.

I also like to wear high quality, ultraviolet filter shades when outside, especially if the sun is particularly bright. I try to keep inside lighting at a relative low level -- bright enough to read by, but not so bright that I can spot every speck of dust in the air!

III. Factors Affecting Frustration

1. Sensory Dysfunction

After long periods of sensory dysfunction, the entire nervous system seems to dysfunction, causing severe motor coordination difficulties. Sensory integration is a process by which the brain takes incoming information from each of the senses, adds it to information already stored in the memory, and makes meaningful responses.

When the system doesn't function properly, it causes the individual to have severe fine motor coordination problems. For such an individual, it is difficult to perform even mundane tasks, especially writing. It is like an office that has gotten shuffled around to the point that every worker is confused as to what his job is supposed to be. Children with the disorder, many of whom were also autistic, were frequently misunderstood, and thought to be stubborn or lazy.

Fortunately, through the work of Dr. Jean Ayres in her work at UCLA, much of that has changed. Likening it to a severe traffic jam on some busy city intersection, she was able to show that it can be both diagnosed and treated, using some of the same occupational therapy techniques commonly used with adults.(11)

Perhaps she should have called it "Sensory Reintegration" except that when shortened, SI definitely sounds better. At any rate, what it does is it causes one to be able to sense things much better. I think of it as a way of reintegrating the sensory system, which really is every bit as complex as the immune system.

Incidentally, unlike some allergies, desensitization is not possible in autism. Taking a child to a crowded mall does not result in making the child less sensitive to crowd noise; it only worsens the problem.

2. Resistance to Change

One source of frustration in most people's lives is any type of change, especially if unexpected. What makes the autistic individual different is the degree of resistance to change, due mostly to the rigid, machine- like, thought processes. The need for rituals arises out of needing to see structure and orderliness in the environment -- families, neighbors, etc; otherwise, the individual perceives only chaos, and overreacts. This perceived lack of structure comes in various forms, including boredom.

One solution would surely include music therapy. Ever since the days of David and King Saul, harp music has been known to promote emotional and physical wellbeing, but only recently has science figured out how it does. Recent pilot studies indicate lowered levels of the stress hormone cortisol, even for weeks afterwards, and heightened levels of melatonin, the hormone so important for better sleep. (12)

Perhaps not a panacea, music is being studied for potential benefits by the medical community. It is thought to be able to influence brain wave frequencies. While everyone feels occasional anxiety, autistic individuals feel it to a much greater extent due to their mental rigidity and to their hypersensitivy to light and noise. Thus, while such music is beneficial to everyone, it is especially so for those who are autistic. Interestingly, recent studies show that as little as thirty minutes of exposure to harp music will increase IgA antibody levels in the body by 20%. (13)

Cancer researchers are also looking at music for its ability to reduce stress hormones cortisol and interleukin in the body. (14) Other types of music, particularly Baroque, have also been noted to have beneficial health effects.

2. Hypersensitivity

Hypersensitivity by necessity includes all of my senses, such as when seemingly harmless sounds becomes painful. Hearing sensitivity, for me, includes clicking sounds or loud booming sounds, especially if such sounds go on for long. To cope, I like to using foam ear plugs or rolled up cotton balls to decrease the volume. Otherwise, I try to reduce the noise level in various other ways. I use plastic dishes rather than stoneware. I avoid small room with big echo problems. I lay things down gently rather than drop them. I also like to spend a few minutes alone relaxing in a dark, quiet room.

My taste buds are so sensitive, even as they are in so many autistic individuals. In the case of children with autism, they are not going to like bland foods (rice); nor are they going to like aromatic foods with the "wrong" flavor (liver). I've found avoidance to be a good strategy.

Undesirable scents can be frustrating because they tend to be continuous in nature; thus, the frustration level in the autistic individual may build until he or she cannot handle it anymore. I just avoid the insulting odors whenever possible.

(1) Hashimoto, Tokiashi, et. al. (1995) Development of the brainstem and cerebellum in autistic patients. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 25, 1-18.

(3) McLean, J. (1996). Factors influencing cortical development [Online]. Available HTTP:

(3) Gilman, S. Collaborative Linkage Study of Autism [Online]. Available HTTP:

(4) Schmidt, G.J. (1989) Aerobic exercise related to functional aerobic capacity, repetitive/interfering behavior, and platelet serotonin concentration of individuals with autism. (Dissertation)

(5)Upledger, John E. (2000). Discover CranioSacral Therapy. [Online]. Available HTTP:

(6)Upledger, John E. (2000). Autism - Observations, Experiences, and Concepts. [Online]. Available HTTP:

(7)Upledger, John E. (2000). Autism - Observations, Experiences, and Concepts. [Online]. Available HTTP:

(8) The Candida Albicans Mystery [Online]. Available HTTP:

(9) Crook, W. (1997) Frequently asked questions. [Online] Available HTTP:

(10) (1997) Candidiasis. [Online] Available HTTP:

(11) Sensory Integrative Dysfunction in Young Children [Online]. Available HTTP:

(12) The News-Times Health News Science is proving what many already believed: the power of song [Online]. Available HTTP:

(13) Information about Research and Study on Easy Listening Music [Online]. Available HTTP:

(14) Music Therapy - New Directions in Research [Online]. Available HTTP:

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