What Causes Autism? A Theory About Endocrine Disruptors
Over the past 30 years, toxic chemicals, like Teflon, plastics, and formaldehyde have increasingly invaded our homes. We used to think these substances were harmless, but a rising tide of evidence has turned the spotlight on chemical exposures as a possible poison to our children’s developing brains.
Over the past 30 years, toxic chemicals, like Teflon, plastics and formaldehyde have increasingly invaded our homes. We used to think these substances were harmless, but a rising tide of evidence suggests that these chemicals may be a possible poison to our children’s developing brains.
Growing Concerns About Endocrine Disruptors
While researchers do not know exactly what causes autism, they have concluded it’s not vaccines.They believe genetics play a big role and growing evidence points to fetal chemical exposure as a contributing factor.
One group of substances of particular concern is a ubiquitous family of hormone-twisting compounds, known as endocrine disrupting chemicals or EDCs. EDCs come in a wide variety of forms that the average person comes in contact with every single day: BPAs in food cans and hard plastic water bottles; phthalates in soft plastics and many cosmetics; and fire retardants in sofas, clothing and even computers.
These substances are the focus of intense scrutiny because: 1) they’re found in every home in America; 2) they’re increasingly linked to human disease; 3) our exposure to them has risen in parallel with the surge in autism diagnoses; and 4) they may theoretically affect the developing fetal brain.
In 2000, a Centers for Disease Control (CDC) study found detectable phthalates in 99.9% of adults including women of childbearing age. The CDC also discovered detectable levels of BPA in 93% of thousands of Americans tested (6 years of age and older).
The presence of EDCs in women of child-bearing age is especially worrisome. That is because there is evidence that even minuscule amounts of these chemicals— levels commonly present in a woman’s body—may disturb fetal brain development during highly sensitive periods of neural development known as windows of vulnerability.
Multiple animal and human studies have also linked EDC exposure (during or after fetal development) with a host of hormone-related disorders, like low sperm count, cancer (breast, ovarian, prostate, testicular), obesity and congenital malformation of the genitals.
Theory Links EDCs to Autism
Our increasing exposure to EDCs lends support to a new hypothesis on what causes autism, called the “extreme male theory.” This theory, proposed by Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen and colleagues, speculates that autism is caused by something changing a fetus’ hormonal balance that then leads to over-masculinization of the developing brain.
Could that “something” be the onslaught of hormone-altering chemicals we’re exposed to every day? Are EDCs the reason autism-type disorders are 4-9 times more common in boys? Vaccine side effects never show such lopsided impact on boys versus girls…a fact that is ignored by those promoting the “vaccine theory” of autism.
The “extreme male theory” has been supported by two interesting bits of evidence:
- Fetuses with slightly elevated levels of testosterone grow up acting extra-male… they’re more interested in things than people and have slower language development.
- Children with autism—both boys and girls—show extra-male characteristics like poor social abilities and language delays.
Here is where the very interesting link to EDCs comes into play: EDCs often act as weak estrogens and estrogen feminizes the body, but in the brain of the developing fetus estrogen actually has the opposite effect…it causes masculinization. In other words, it is possible that these estrogen-imitating EDC may pass through their mom’s blood, enter into the fetus’ brain and lead to the “hyper-male” characteristics associated with ASD (like, poor social skills, delayed verbal ability, attention difficulties, etc.)
What’s Next in Autism Research
For now, these ideas are just interesting theories, but the evidence is concerning. We urgently need continual studies looking into every valid theory for what causes autism, and specifically, if EDCs, or other chemicals, are linked to the worldwide rise of the disorder. We also need more accurate determinations of the true incidence of autism. The number of children with a true form of autism vs. those who are misdiagnosed is still unclear.