The Cause of Autism is the System

“What is the cause of Autism?”

This is a tricky (and pretty much a trick) question because it requires looking at cause and effect very differently. In many ways we could say our scientific paradigm causes Autism. A paradigm that first doesn’t acknowledge that autism is a natural consequence of evolution. And further that during this particular time in our evolution our current approach to science has thrown off the ecosystem balances we’ve maintained and built over hundreds of thousands of years.

Autism has always been here, because we always pushed the envelope. We have always been as smart and creative as the amount of resources have let us. We have always stressed ourselves to be the best we can be. The problem with these last two generations is that we have pulled the rug from our resources such as germs, fats and social structure.  We are now under the kind of stress that comes from having a body-mind accustomed to having high quality fuel and resources and now stuck with McDonald’s and loads of toxic exposures (chemical, noise, nutritional and social). We set a trap for ourselves and now a majority of our population is living a stressed-out and amplified existence. Not enough resources for the type and amount of stress we subject ourselves to. We see a proliferation of stress-adaptation type disorders. From autism to Alzheimer’s, mental illness to cancer, ALS to MS.

What is meant by stress is essentially how we “read” our environment and stay in balance with it.  Our sensitivity to stress varies by individual because we all have unique needs, priorities and strategies to balance stress (or information) we receive from the world around us.  Stress, how we respond to challenges, is very personal.

When we here the term “stress” we typically think of it as an anxiety about our social world. However, stress -as a framework- is about the interaction we have with our environment.

In the old scientific paradigm, our genetic constitution was solid and unchanging.  But now we know that this was wrong. We are constantly changing, ebbing and flowing with the environment around us. Our microbiome, the plasticity of our brain, the constant reprogramming of our stress structures like the HPA-axis and the turning on and off of genes through epigenetics. Stress is about those balances; the complex layers and mixes of chemicals, brain structures, hormones and metabolic capacities that balance the work that needs to be done, resources we need to acquire, compensations that need to be made. It gives us the motivation to learn and adapt to the information stress gives us about the world around us. In many ways “stress” is how we sense and adapt to the world around us. It is what keeps us alive… it is also what creates ill-health.

The Old Way

In a linear model of finding single causes, the definition, what we thought of as stress, was that of a fleeting “danger response”.   Measured by a cortisol response (Mayo Clinic).  Stress is thought of as “emotional anxiety”.  We also thought very simply of stress as countering oxidative stress from reactive oxygen species (ROS), a simple balancing of “good and bad”. Antioxidants were good and ROS was bad.

However, those are just two main signatures of stress (linear outcomes).  Aspects of stress we can measure quite simply. They are happening or they are not, to be labeled good or bad. This type of linear perspective makes stress balancing look like a teeter-totter. This is too oversimplified to understand the complexity of interactions stress has on our body and evolution. For this we need a nonlinear view. A view where this complex dance of balances is bidirectional, individual, multi-layered, and with a multitude of influences. A point of view that instead of just a few structures and chemicals involved, this view will include almost every structure in the body as stress-reactive. Basically we are stress-reactive structures and every aspect of our being can be seen from a “Stress Perspective”.

The liver for example is a complex detoxification system (called the P450) that varies by which genes we have and how they are turned on. The detoxification system is a major part of how we sense or are impacted by what is stressful (including drug and toxin metabolism). The new science of epigenetics could be thought of itself as how we interact and are programed and adapt across generations to stress. Stress was often thought of as being a social or “in the mind” issue. However, stress, when we experience, adjust, are stimulated by and adapt (for better or worse) to stress, depends not only on the individual, but timing, gender, nutritional status and a multitude of other factors. Stress is a science unto itself, following rules we have not yet fully incorporated into our current medical model.

Some of the more profound implications, if we have indeed “pulled the rug” out from our resiliences to stress, is that foundational resources, when tampered with, can have subtle but profound consequences (look at all of the current research and beginning treatments the microbiome is giving us).  This is pretty huge considering the type of science we have had for the last 100 years. It was a scientific paradigm that sought out single causes and single cures (via the Germ Theory Biomedical Model and the rules of Koch’s Postulates).

So imagine what happens in any ecosystem when you mess with just ONE single factor?

You guessed it. We can potentially throw off the complex web of interconnected systems in ways we never imagined. Again look at the now exploding research that germs are actually our friends and companions for taking on the environment and all of the complex ways, when thrown out of balance, it causes problems. And remember this is BRAND NEW, for the last 100 years germs were seen as the ultimate enemy to be destroyed. What happens when you destroy essential friends of our immune and our stress capacity balances?

From John Sterman “All Models are Wrong: Reflections on Becoming a Systems Scientist”
Thoughtful leaders increasingly recognize that we are not only failing to solve the persistent problems we face, but are in fact causing them. System dynamics is designed to help avoid such policy resistance and identify high-leverage policies for sustained improvement. What does it take to be an effective systems thinker, and to teach system dynamics fruitfully? Understanding complex systems requires mastery of concepts such as feedback, stocks and flows, time delays, and non-linearity. Research shows that these concepts are highly counter-intuitive and poorly understood. It also shows how they can be taught and learned. Doing so requires the use of formal models and simulations to test our mental models and develop our intuition about complex systems. Yet, though essential, these concepts and tools are not sufficient. Becoming an effective systems thinker also requires the rigorous and disciplined use of scientific inquiry skills so that we can uncover our hidden assumptions and biases. It requires respect and empathy for others and other viewpoints. Most important, and most difficult to learn, systems thinking requires understanding that all models are wrong and humility about the limitations of our knowledge. Such humility is essential in creating an environment in which we can learn about the complex systems in which we are embedded and work effectively to create the world we truly desire.(2002)

We use to think if we had a cause and if we got rid of that cause then we would solve the problem. In an ecosystem science cause and effect is more about complex feedbacks, programming and trade-offs. It’s not so much what something may “do” to a system, but what that something “tells” the system.

Stress has come to a tipping point throwing off our balances and resiliency.

What are the specific causes of Autism? 

Part 1: What causes stress in the individual

Well, first there is no “cause” as we typically think of it, because in systems science the system is its own cause. (Meadows, “Thinking in Systems“).

“Thinking in Systems: A Primer” Donella Meadows. Chelsea Green Publishing; 2008.

“So, what is a system? A system is a set of things—people, cells, molecules, or whatever—interconnected in such a way that they produce their own pattern of behavior over time. The system maybe buffeted, constricted, triggered, or driven by outside forces. But the system’s response to these forces is characteristic of itself, and that response is seldom simple in the real world. The system, to a large extent, causes its own behavior! An outside event may unleash that behavior, but the same outside event applied to a different system is likely to produce a different result. (p.34)… You’ll be thinking not in terms of a static world, but a dynamic one. You’ll stop looking for who’s to blame; instead you’ll start asking “What’s the system?””

So to that fact Autism would theoretically be a manifestation typically in a “Peripheral Mind”. Its an amplification of stress and cognitive processes with subsequent trade-offs unique to the individual. Cognitive-style, which we can think of as how we may see the base foundation for personality, like whether one is a Picture, Pattern or Word Thinker, could be giving us a clue as to how one is susceptible to stresses, their more reactive natures to stress and their more intimate use of stress-related cognitive strategies for processing information. (See more of the biophysiological structures related to both personality of thinking types and correlated hormone, genetic and brain structures in my previous article).

Genetic Causes

So causes can be as varied and confounding (additive or multiplied by several factors) as social factors (when we make the mistake of catering to “normal” or the average functioning individual), to diverse as the myriad of chemicals and early life exposures.

This is why we see so many correlation studies about the causes of Autism, but nothing definitive. Because what can stress a system can be individual to the person and situation. But all of the individual suspect act through the mechanisms of stress.

First the flexibility and how one processes information reflects how one handles “stress” or the communication of what is referred to as salience or what one considers important, threatening or vital information that one uses to make changes, adaptations and alertness. This would be our “initial condition” to what and how one is susceptible to and their own unique response to stress.

Environmental Causes: The Foundations for Stress Resiliency.

Our resources, which can vary in “importance” or priority between individuals. If one lacks community or emotional supports it can create greater vulnerability to the environment. The same with lacking minerals. Or lacking what I’ve noticed to be central to many disorders and reflect our linear single-source causation science misapplication.

We lack the foundations of essential fats, microbes and Vitamin D (from sunlight and fats). When we mess with these kind of foundations, we alter our ability to handle other stressors such as pesticides, chemicals, pollutants, heavy metals and even emotional or pain stress.

Solutions: Medical, nutritional, cognitive and social ways of balancing stress.

Its a lot about these brains and bodies attempting to balance resources, save energy and stop the overwhelming world from flooding in.We also see many solutions or therapies incorporating the “lost” information when these individual brains are overwhelmed by information and other factors that over-power their sensory loads.In Autism we see many factors of stressful influences creating Autism outcomes. Just as we see many factors of either reducing stress or building resiliency as solutions or accommodations that improve function and outcomes.



The microbiome: A key regulator of stress and neuroinflammation.