Dear Robert DeNiro, You’re Not Wrong to want more Conversation about Autism (and Vaccines)

Rdeniro.jpgThe connection between autism and vaccines has been in the media again. This time, last week from actor and film director Robert DeNiro. DeNiro first accepted a controversial anti-vaccination documentary called “Vaxxed” for his Tribeca Film Festival and then subsequently pulled the film. Stating that this wasn’t the correct platform for the conversation he had hoped to have. It is a topic that is close to many parents hearts and close to health care experts professional concerns. Parents want to understand the cause of their child’s autism. Doctors want to protect children from infectious disease. But the parents still feel “something is up”.  Too many have come forward with the same experience. They had a child that seemed fine and then regressed into autism after vaccination. Is it in their heads? Just coincidence of when autism expresses itself? Or is it something else?

Its thought of to be ridiculous, and even dangerous, to question something that is so crucial to our health. However, it is such an important matter, that the conversation continues, as many believe there are questions left unanswered. While it seems best and easiest to dismiss, ignore and move on, I agree with Mr. DeNiro that there needs to be continued conversation. If not for any other reason than to continue to reassure parents to get their kids vaccinated.  And maybe someday, if it can evolve into a better conversation, a conversation from a stress perspective, we might better understand vaccines and their presumed role in Autism and create a stronger vaccination program.

Vaccines are Life Saving

The most important reason this needs to be discussed again in a new light is because the vaccination program is crucial to our overall health. And many parents are forgoing or eschewing the schedule. And while there has been lots of research and mudslinging propaganda on both sides. The only conversation currently is one that hinges on the opposing views that “vaccines are evil versus they are miracles of modern medicine not to be questioned”.  And that’s not a conversation.

What I continue to hear, and my heart breaks for, are the parents saying “We don’t know what happened we just know what we experienced. We had what appeared as an engaged child and after vaccines and fever, they regressed. Let’s discuss and help us understand.”

Vaccines do not cause Autism

This is true, but Autism is not caused by any single thing. Rather, autism is a complex gene-environment interaction. Something in someone’s physiology reacts to the environment in such a way that it brings out the core features of autism: stereotypical and repetitive behavior and deficits of social behavior and communication.   The problem isn’t in the causes themselves, it is how we looked at causes. We looked at them through the lens of a now outdated logic and framework. That in order to find a cause of something you had to find it in everyone who has the disorder. So if vaccines were “a” cause, it had to be “the” cause. This was true for germs and single-cause disease, however, it’s not true for gene-environment interaction disorders. These disorders depend on how the system itself reacts to the cause. So for autism there are likely hundreds of “causes”. Causes that create stress and create an adaptation to stress that has behavioral and neurological trade-offs.  (edited: Many say that vaccines simply coincide with when the symptoms of autism present itself. This is quite true. It is possible that the “stress” of growth that occurs when children switch from crawling to walking may be the first of many such regressions seen in this population)

One of the biggest problems is that most people approach the problem as if, if vaccines cause autism they cause it in everyone. We have to look at it from a stress perspective and ask the question instead: Did/Could the vaccine cause enough stress to create autistic regression?

The New Way to See the Causes of Autism

First let’s talk about what we mean by the word “stress”.  We generally equate the word stress in a social context, as in someone or something is causing us anxiety (traffic, peer pressures, parental fighting). Stress is about a balance of internal resources, priorities, adaptations.  But in this context, stress a communication avenue between us and the world. It lets us know when there are challenges. It allows us to know what is meaningful.

We could say that stress causes autism. Or really that stress causes many disease and disorders. It would be fair to say this because most modern day disorders, if not directly caused by, work through the channels or are exasperated by internal oxidative stress. We sort of know that things like cancer can come from toxins or toxic events. We often think of this as causing damage, but what is really happening is that it sends the body into alert and adaptation modes. It creates major shifts in the body’s inner adaptive processes and energy saving strategies. You get all sorts of disorders. From Cancer, Alzheimer’s, Chronic Fatigue, Mental Illness, Diabetes, the list goes on.  They operate through the world of stress mechanisms; channels, triggers and a delicate balance between the resources we have available and the challenges we must overcome.

Everyone responds to stress differently and everyone may have a different trigger for a stress reaction. For Autism, stress creating the disorder is in a way programming that individual to work better in some ways (hence we see so many “gifts” in autism), but this comes at a cost to the body and to energy. It can impact other developmental milestones. This sometimes massive amount of information or lack thereof can lead to “bottlenecks” of information, trade-offs in organ function, and stress to many internal systems. Working better is sometimes like putting high octane fuel into an engine not prepared for it.

Autism is a particular way in which the person adjusts, adapts and compensates for stress (challenges from the environment). Even though we could say stress is the cause, in reality the system is its own cause. So nothing causes Autism per se, rather each system can be thrown off by a myriad combination of factors. We see the many varied traits, outcomes and symptoms of Autism.

Our World is Becoming More Stressful

In the last century we have thrown off our balances within the ecosystems of our food chains and our bodies. Fats, sugars, gut bacteria, minerals, and hormone balances have all suffered. We’ve done this by replacing many natural balances and putting in their place artificial sources like trans-fats, higher Omega 6 to Omega 3 ratios, HFCS (higher fructose ratios), antibacterial everything, and endocrine disruptors from pesticides and plastics. All of these factors can make common stresses in our environment more stressful. Stress is having a greater and greater impact on us. And we are requiring greater and greater compensations for those stressors.

The New Vaccine Conversation

The question about vaccines become:

Does a vaccine cause a significant stress in a small percentage of the population?

Do vaccines, or substances in vaccines, cause the kind of stress that can alter the type of programming that leads to autistic-like dysfunctioning?

If stress from a vaccine could potentially, in an extremely small minority of those on the spectrum, bring out further autistic dysfunction or regression for those specific individuals, should we get rid of vaccines? The answer to this question would be a resounding: NO.

Why? Because having the measles would be much more stressful to a young system than a vaccine.  Therefore, theoretically, getting rid of vaccines would cause MORE autism.

 Are vaccines protecting us from more Autism?

Theoretically if we were to get rid of vaccines and let measles run wild, we would theoretically see more Autism, not less from a stress perspective. This is because under the logic and science of stress, an actual disease would be much more stressful than a vaccine. There is no single cause of Autism. It is a large combination of many factors that impact how we handle stress and when stress becomes too stressful. Vaccines, which are a very small stress, if creating issues, then we are most likely looking at the question of why are all stressors becoming more stressful? Vaccines are a great thing, but if have we altered our nutrition and our stable state of handling stress and even a very small minority is reacting to a small stress like life-saving vaccines, then we have a serious stress regulation problem.

Parents do not deserve to be treated as if they are Crazy

The parents that have witnessed regression and reaction to vaccines just want answers. And they are not crazy nor imagining things. They are doctors, lawyers, teachers, politicians, actors, celebrities, CEOs and PhD’s, but most importantly they are parents. Sane. Concerned. Valued friends and neighbors who experienced an event that is very real and they deserve answers. So here is a possible answer. The vaccine or the subsequent reactions in the body was enough of a stress to create greater autistic dysfunction and stress/pain programming. To find a solution to this, we do not get rid of vaccines, what we could do is create greater resilience through building up our social and nutritional resources before and shortly after vaccines. Most importantly we acknowledge that yes, this could be a problem, and we set in place early intervention reversals of stress programming through medication, nutritional or social supports. And there is research to suggest this is the potential path to future health directives.

Paying attention to those very important programming pathways, such as epigenetics, for more balanced health outcomes, and ultimately safer and better vaccine programs. What is so threatening about that conversation?

What the parents experience is real. It does NOT mean we get rid of vaccines. What it does mean is we have to change the way we see and approach autism and stress-related programming disorders and instill programs that value the individual’s response to their environment and to create the best environment possible.

Let’s change the conversation. Remove the hate. Acknowledge our missing parts of our medical approaches. And move toward a brighter, more accepting future all around. Thanks Robert DeNiro for continuing the conversation. 

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