Rethinking Autism: A Problem of Modern Society?
I came across a few pieces of media in recent weeks that were thought-provoking regarding the nature of autism and its causes.
TED TALK #1
First is this TED talk, by autism researcher and autistic adult Jac den Houting, a research psychologist at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, titled "Why everything you know about autism is wrong". (I'll summarize below)
She talks about the social model of disability. The idea is that, rather than being truly disabled, someone who has a disability has an environment that is poorly suited to them. The environment is poorly developed for their needs. She uses an example of a shopping mall. She sees an environment that has been too loud, too noisy, and too crowded for someone with autism.
Her research found that autistics don't truly have a communication problem. They have challenges communicating with non-autistics. A study found that autistics can communicate well with other autistics, and non-autistics communicate well with other non-autistics. The challenge came when autistics and non-autistics tried to communicate with each other. What is needed, she says, is research and development into helping autistics and non-autistics communicate better (which is poorly funded in Australia).
With Jac's TED talk floating around in my head, and this idea of the social model of disability, a few days later I came across the below Tumblr post, shared in an autism group on Facebook. (Pardon any language and bad grammar.)
"Disability exists in the context of environment" - similar to what Jac was saying.
This put some interesting ideas in my head.
The frequency of autism diagnosis has gone up considerably in recent years. In the 1980s, it was 1 in 1000. As of 2014, it was 16 in 1000.
As the Tumblr post brings up, this is in part because of increased awareness about autism. We have more knowledge, familiarity, and resources now. It wasn't realized that I was autistic until I was 12, because autism was little known when I was little, and the diagnosis of Asperger's syndrome (similar to high-functioning autism) didn't make it into the diagnosis manuals until I was 8. A psychiatrist when I was 10 said "I've never seen anyone quite like Dan, but maybe ADD medication will help". (Some people with autism also have ADD, but I don't, so the medication didn't help.)
As the post I've shared above suggests, perhaps autism has been around for a long time, but we've called it different things. But as it also says, our society has gotten louder, noisier, more crowded, and more hectic. It's easier to notice that someone has a sensitivity to light and noise when there's more light and noise around.
Similarly, as it says, no one had heard of dyslexia before literacy became widespread.
TED TALK #2
There's one more factor about modern society that I think contributes to the rise of autism, as discussed in this next TED talk. "The surprisingly dramatic role of nutrition in mental health". (Again, I'll summarize below)
Dr. Julia Rucklidge is a Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Canterbury, in New Zealand. Her research focuses on the impact of nutrition on mental health.
Her research has found that with mental health issues (specifically ADHD, bipolar disorder, anxiety, stress, and PTSD) treating with medication has a positive, short-term benefit, but that long-term it has no benefit or can even make things worse. Research further found that a nutrition regimen has a greater, and more lasting, impact on mental health. She notes the same impact on autism as well.
Side note: For those curious or interested, she doesn't provide specifics on her nutrient regimen. She notes that she treats using a wide variety of different vitamins and minerals, in much higher doses that are available in commercially available multivitamins. I've found and read her studies and she never provides information about what specific nutrients she supplements, or how much.
This confirms something that I had my suspicions about for a long time: that the rise of autism rates may be in part due to declining nutrition. This article in Scientific American shares a study showing that our food has fewer nutrients than it used to.
I've talked in past articles about how supplementing vitamin D, magnesium, and zinc can have a significant impact on many of the symptoms of autism. If these and other nutrients make a difference in autism, and less of those are now found in our food, it would make things worse. A less nutritious diet would bring out more of these symptoms.
Unless you eat a lot of fish, little of your vitamin D is coming from your diet, so declining nutrition in our food has less impact on how much vitamin D we're getting. However, as a society, we're now spending a lot more time indoors, limiting our vitamin D production. Lack of vitamin D causes low levels of serotonin (which regulates mood, and the lack of which causes anxiety, depression, and stress), and oxytocin (the bonding hormone that also helps with social learning).
A Problem of Modern Society?
Let me now answer the question I posed in the title of this article. Do I think autism is a problem of modern society? Yes, but with caveats. I think autism has been made more common by modern society.
From my research on the subject, autism definitely has a genetic component, but has environmental factors as well. As I've discussed, autism has likely been around for a long time, but under different names. However, a busier society, with declining nutrition, appear to have exacerbated those underlying genetic factors, making autism symptoms worse and more common.
Identifying the causes of autism is no easy task. Autism is complicated, with multiple factors contributing to it. But the better we understand it, the better we can address it.