Autism, Brain, and Environment

By Richard Lathe | Go to book overview

Preface

This analysis is offered in the hope that it may help to place a new and oddly shaped piece, autism, at its proper place within a much bigger jigsaw puzzle – and one whose ramifications may be far wider than autism spectrum disorders.

The book, originally intended for professionals, has been broadened to make the material accessible to non-specialists – families, medical practitioners, teachers, support workers, psychologists, political/environmental lobbies, and to autistic individuals themselves. Serving these different audiences in a single work is not an easy undertaking, and the assistance of informed readers in this task has been very helpful.

My first encounter with autism, in the child of a close acquaintance, was a surprise and an enigma. A surprise because autism was entirely new to me; my mother taught special needs children for many years but autism was scarcely in evidence. And it was an enigma too – I was intrigued by the striking resemblance between autistic behavior and cases of injury to a specific brain region: the hippocampus and its anatomical extension, the amygdala. Over more than a decade earlier my researches focused on brain genes and biochemistry, dwelling on the hippocampus, this unusual structure toward the center of the brain. Many odd features of autism – the repetitive behavior and anxiety – conspicuously reiterated some common effects of hippocampal damage. The same oddities were seen again and again in other children with autism of varying severity. The question could not be avoided – is the hippocampus somehow involved in autism?

As the investigations advanced, more parallels and overlaps emerged. Epilepsy and even pain insensitivity gave further clues. Then a wealth of evidence emerged that the key brain regions are unusually and exquisitely sensitive to environmental toxicity. There was finally no avoiding the conclusion that the physiological problems seen in autism, including gastrointestinal inflammation with hormone excesses and deficiencies, might reflect damage to just these key brain regions, and could also contribute to such damage – and, if so, perhaps provide a primary focus for medical intervention.

Autism can be a debilitating disorder. Thorough understanding offers hope of remedial therapies that could have a real prospect of ameliorating the condition.

Richard Lathe Edinburgh, December 2005

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