Can autism be prevented?

I have been associated with the Defeat Autism Now! group for many years now. I attended my first conference with them in 2000 when a desperate mother almost begged me to go because she felt that no one knew how to treat children with autism in Houston, and there was a dire need for this type of expertise. Since then I attended many more conferences with them and plan to go to more in the future.

I have the greatest respect for this organization, but often wondered over the years why so little time was devoted at their meetings and conferences to discussing the topic of autism prevention, rather than just treatment. This has changed completely with an outstanding article on this very topic authored by David Berger, MD.

Dr. Berger is a board certified pediatrician who has been a long-standing member of Defeat Autism Now! and a regular speaker at their conferences. His article was accepted for publication and will appear in issue 4 (2012) of Autism Science Digest.

In it, Dr. Berger describes strategies he has been implementing for more than 10 years to prevent the birth of a second child with autism, in families who already have one. Statistically, parents with an autistic child are at much greater risk than the general population of having a second child with this same condition. Although more than 500 couples implemented Dr. Berger’s protocol, to the best of his knowledge, none had a second child with autism.

This is not just for second children however. It is a sensible program that can only benefit parents and their unborn children and is good for anyone who may feel at risk or may simply want to take extra precautions. Implementation should begin months before any attempt is made to conceive. There is nothing mysterious about Dr. Berger’s program. I have done similar things over the years for parents who asked me to, and even though I did not keep a record of numbers or results, I have a feeling that most if not all of the parents who did this with me also ended up with healthy children.

To begin with, Dr. Berger makes sure that mothers to be are on a high-quality prenatal multi, not just the average one usually prescribed. One of the differences is that high-quality prenatals contain the active form of folic acid also known as L-5-MTFH, or Deplin if by prescription, not just synthetic folic acid. Even though synthetic folic acid was proven to work in a majority of cases, people who have certain genetic traits cannot convert it to the active form of folic acid that their bodies need. Studies have shown that parents of autistic children have a higher rate of these genetic traits than the general population. In affected individuals, synthetic folic acid does not work and could actually be counterproductive and increase – rather than decrease – the risk of developmental problems.

Dr. Berger also recommends screening for other critical vitamin and mineral deficiencies, including vitamin D, which was shown to often be severely deficient in mothers of children with autism and other developmental problems.

Another one of Dr. Berger’s recommendations is to test mothers to be for antibodies to gluten and casein (found in milk and milk products). If results are positive, they should follow a strict gluten- and casein-free diet prior to conception and for the duration of the pregnancy and lactation. Newly released research shows a correlation between antibodies to gluten in mothers and the rate of psychiatric disorders in their children (see

Dr. Berger then does a “challenge” urine test – something I commonly do in my practice – to screen mothers for high levels of mercury, lead and other toxins. If positive, the mother should follow a period of detoxification and bring the levels down prior to conceiving.

A mother’s good health is especially important for the future health of her children, because the developing embryo and fetus is fed entirely by the mother during pregnancy, and this is when many developmental problems actually begin. Exposure to toxins, like mercury and lead, in utero can be particularly harmful in the early developmental stages of the nervous system. A father’s health is important as well, and in my opinion, ideally, both parents should be similarly evaluated.

I consider this type of prenatal counseling one of the more important things I do in my practice, and am happy to see parents in my office or consult by phone for those who are not in the Houston area.

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