Can We Crank-Start Our Kids? by Dan E. Burns, PhD

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Autism Redefined: Can We Crank-Start Our Kids? By Dan E. Burns At age sixteen I bought a used 1938 foot-cranked Simplex motorcycle, Betsy. She wouldn’t start. Without operating instructions, I did everything I knew for her: replaced the spark plug, tested the magneto, cleaned the carburetor, cranked her some more. No connection, no joy. I sold the antique contraption for $35, less than I paid. Turns out a Simplex motorcycle won’t start unless the brake is depressed while cranking. Fifty years later, my question is, “How can I crank-start my 22-year-old autistic son, Ben? What is the step I don’t know?” I need an operating manual. If autism is genetic, a birth defect, as was assumed when Ben was diagnosed, the best I can do is to wait for the gene doctors to come up with something. What they have come up with so far is evidence that in most cases autism, unlike like color blindness, Huntington’s or Down syndrome, is not necessarily a congenital disorder. Indeed, the epidemic increase in reported autism prevalence – 40% in two years – suggests that autism is largely environmental, a disease caused by a toxic exposure to pathogens, poisons, or both. Is Autism a Brain Injury? I asked Harvard brain researcher Dr. Martha Herbert (at Transcend Research Group, HERE), “If autism is the result of a pre- or post-natal toxic insult – in other words a brain injury – why aren’t our kids given intensive rehabilitation therapy like stroke survivors? And why doesn’t insurance pay for that?” She answered, “It’s not a brain injury like crashing your motorcycle without a helmet. We’re seeing inflammation and injuries at the cellular level, similar to problems in vulnerable people who’ve had long-term chronic exposures to toxics. Genetics loads the gun, as the saying goes, but environment pulls the trigger.” So where is the wound? Dr. Andrew Wakefield thinks he may have found it: the epicenter of the neurological injury. The hypothesis, in his own words, is “very bold, not my idea, and likely, perhaps, to be wrong.” But he then goes on to cite a plausible synthesis of ideas, observations, and evidence that point to an injury in the brainstem – the oldest and most primitive part of the brain. (Wakefield’s lecture is available on Computer Video DVD-ROM from AutismOne HERE). The hypothetical injury is located in dorsal vagal complex. It’s a point where due to a break in the blood-brain barrier, toxins can get in. And it is the point where the vagus nerve originates. The vagus nerve is called “the wanderer,” or in Wakefield’s memorable term, “the vagrant in the brain,” because it travels down to the intestines and up to the higher brain centers, where it is supposed to convey sensory information about the state of the body's organs. In Wakefield’s model, the disease in some instances follows the vagus nerve. It starts in the gut and climbs to the brainstem, sparking a domino effect of cellular injuries that blight the higher cortical functions and result in the baffling behaviors we call autism.
If Wakefield’s hypothesis is right – “I think he’s on the right track,” Dr. Martha Herbert told me – we have our finger on the primal wound, the neurological epicenter. Sooner or later we may be able to repair the damage and to crank-start the injured brain. And that will be Chapter One of the operating manual. Dan and Autism Trust of Texas
Dan E. Burns, Ph.D., former filmmaker, software developer, and businessman, taught communication courses at Southern Methodist University, the University of Texas at Arlington, and the University of Phoenix. In 1990 his third child, Benjamin, was diagnosed with autism. Burns' memoir, Saving Ben: A Father's Story of Autism ( published by UNT Press, tells of a three-year-old child's regression as an infant into autism and Burns' struggle with the medical establishment, the school system, and his family in the battle for Ben's health as a father who never gives up. Dr. Burns is Adult Issues Liaison for AutismOne. Planning for the time when he and Ben's mom pass on, Dr. Burns is developing the Autism Trust of Texas, modeled on The Autism Trust (U.K.) and focused on the creation of new communities to offer a future for the increasing number of children with autism. They will provide a home base for life where adults with autism can work, live and improve their skills and talents in a creative and supportive environment.