Decoding My Autism

For a long time, I've tried to understand what goes on in my brain. Along the way, I've learned some things and made discoveries that have helped me live a better life.

  • Dan Bell

Autism Isn't Just Genetic

A trend I am seeing a lot lately is people saying that the cause of autism is genetic - and they're saying it in a way that implies that it's the sole cause of autism.

I'm not about to argue that autism isn't genetic - that it runs in my family is plenty of evidence of that. Every one of my siblings that has children has an autistic child as well.

I think the assertion that it's genetic is coming in response to the idea that vaccines cause autism. And since this is a controversial subject, let me just add my voice and say Vaccines. Don't. Cause. Autism.

But to say that autism is solely genetic is oversimplifying things. If it were, I don't think Autism would be quite the spectrum that it is. It describes people that are able to hold full-time jobs and live independently, people that can work but need support to function in daily life, nonverbal people that can't communicate, and people that need help with basic functions. If it was only genetic, we wouldn't see such a variety.

Non-genetic factors

If it was only genetic, the following factors that have been shown to affect autism rates wouldn't make a difference:

  • If the mother is hospitalized for infection during pregnancy (Source)

  • If the mother gets a fever during pregnancy - and whether she takes tylenol for that fever (Source)

  • If the mother takes a multivitamin containing folic acid during pregnancy (Source)

  • If a child is delivering via C-section (Source)

For those wondering about that last one, it's because of gut bacteria. A child gets their first population of gut bacteria from their mother. If their born normally, they get that population of bacteria from the mother's birth canal. If they're born C-section, they get it from her skin. The latter has been found to increase the risk of autism.

If you're interested in more information about how gut bacteria can impact can affect autism (another non-genetic factor, by the way), I encourage you to read the article I linked to above. It's a long read, but it's got some great information.

Misunderstood genetics

The genetic aspect of autism is also sometimes misunderstood, especially when it comes to inheriting it. I recently read an account from someone with an autistic child, who wondered which side of their family give it to the child (specifically looking at their spouse's family and wondering if they were the culprit).

While part of it may be due to genes you inherit from one or both parents (my family is evidence of that), that may not be the case for all autism-related genes. As described by Temple Grandin in her book The Autistic Brain, some of the autism-related genes an autistic child may not have been in either parent, but rather was a new mutation, called a de novo mutation.

These mutations sometimes come from the sperm that helped conceive the child. The older the father is, the more chances there are of de novo mutations appearing in his sperm.

There is hope

Even for the factors of autism that are genetic, there is still hope. Gene therapy is a thing, but isn't readily available for the masses, and is currently reserved for life-threatening conditions where we've identified the genes involved. But even without it, we can do something about the genetic effects of autism.

Among the factors in autism that I've talked about before that I suspect are genetic:

And one I know is genetic is the dopamine transporter, which thanks to a genetic flaw doesn't work the way it should. This causes a high level of dopamine in the brain, leading to intense focus and fixation, and contributes to the information overload and an overactive fight-or-flight response.

There are things that can be done to help with most of these:

  • Taking vitamin D supplements can help with mood and social learning

  • Taking magnesium and zinc can help lower dopamine, calm the overactive fight-or-flight response, and lessen the information overload

So yes, there are genetic aspects to autism, but it isn't the sole cause of it. A certain set of genes is not a life sentence. I'm living proof of that. I was nonverbal when I was little, never crawled, and had to be homeschooled starting in middle school because of the challenges I faced. But I learned and grew as a person. I graduated high school, and college (Summa Cum Laude even). I have a full-time job and I'm married. There is hope.

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