About a month ago, Shay West sent out a message to one of her followers on Twitter: “Hope Tuesday is a beautiful green day for you! Trying to go greener for my son w/ autism.”
These days, some people go green or organic to save the planet. But there are others like West implementing “green parenting” strategies in hope of preventing or combating developmental disorders like autism. While there is no consensus on the causes of autism or how to treat it, a growing number of doctors, parents, and experts in the field say that environmental toxins trigger and exacerbate autistic symptoms.
“I think if you’re in the autistic community you realize there’s a lot of suggestion that environmental triggers may explain autism,” said Jennifer Taggart, 40, mom of two, author, and founder of the Smart Mama blog. “A lot of people think about how they can improve their environment when they have kids—if they have an autistic child, they are even more concerned.”
Three recent studies found a link between children’s exposure to household pesticides and autism. A study released by Environmental Health News this week reported that children who live in homes with vinyl floors are twice as likely to have autism.
“Autistic children are genetically more susceptible to environmental toxins—there is no question about that,” said Dr. Stuart H. Freedenfeld, who has treated over 1,000 autistic children at his family practice in Stockton, New Jersey. Freedenfeld treats autistic children with a complex process involving nutrient supplements and detoxification for heavy metals. “When we treat children with autism we don’t say stop using chemicals, and we’ll see you in six months.“
But others think these are just more dubious attempts by desperate parents looking for a last-ditch effort to help their kids. In a recent article published on Slate.com, Sydney Spiesel, a pediatrician in Woodbridge, Conn., and clinical professor of pediatrics at Yale University’s School of Medicine, made the point clear: “Medications, new styles of teaching, classical psychological conditioning, physical manipulation, vitamins, diets, special eyeglasses—many kinds of treatments have been proposed and tried, but few have been tested in a rigorous way.” His ultimate conclusion is that “people who work with autistic clients often come to depend on their own sensitivity and empathy to judge whether a treatment has had a positive or negative impact.”
This could be the case for West, who said that after she worked with a doctor in Greenville, SC—doing a mild detoxification process to take heavy metals out of her son’s system—she has also been very sensitive about the chemicals she cleans her house with and the food her son eats. “I’m trying to make sure that everything that goes into his body is meant to be good for his body,” West said.
Patricia S. Lemer is co-founder and the Executive Director of Developmental Delay Resources (DDR), an international, nonprofit organization integrating conventional and holistic approaches for children with developmental delays.
“Once you know your kid is sick and you know he’s toxic, the smart thing to do is to green your house,” said Lemer, author of the book Envisioning a Bright Future: Interventions that Work for Children and Adults on the Autism Spectrum. “Many doctors don’t know about this: they are drinking Cokes and eating Twinkies and cleaning with Mr. Clean.”
The upswing in green parenting encourages parents to clean with natural cleaning agents. While Savedge and Taggart both mix cleaners with vinegar, lemon and baking soda, there are plenty of green cleaners on the market. Probably the only thing people agree on is that fewer toxins can’t hurt.
“Toxins aren’t good for anybody. However, so many children with autism have a decreased detoxification ability so there’s a priority on not exposing them to any additional toxins,” said Teri Arranga, director of AutismOne and mother to a 10-year-old son with autism. “Autism is a whole body condition just like many other diseases, and autism is absolutely treatable.”
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