Review of Autism Society National Conference in Dallas: Excerpt

The following is excerpted from a review by CHE Partner Leigh Attaway Wilcox of the 2010 Autism Society National Conference. It is reprinted with her permission. The full review is on the Dallas Moms blog.

On July 8, 2010, CHE’s Learning and Developmental Disability Initiative, with the support of the John Merck Fund, cosponsored the 2nd annual Science That Makes a Difference Annual Symposium at the Autism Society of America National Conference.


The “Science Symposium” was potentially the most powerful and meaningful part of the conference, in my opinion. Six very well-respected and knowledgeable experts shared their take on “Environmental Exposures and Child Development: The Latest on Environmental Health Sciences, Developmental Disabilities and Public Health Policy.” While waiting for the first session to begin, I was encouraged that Sharon Lewis and Lee Grossman were both in the audience. Sadly, they both left before the first speaker began. I had secretly hoped that in hearing the blatant scientific proof that our environment is greatly affecting our youngest, and most vulnerable generation, that Ms. Lewis would feel compelled to share concerns with President Obama…that I might even have the opportunity to dialog with her about the topic. However, since she was not there throughout the day, I don’t know if she has heard what these speakers had to say…or what many of the other speakers addressing the topic of our toxic environment have to say…I can only hope that she has heard and will continue to learn from these experts in the coming months.

My dream would be to have President Obama hear directly from these speakers! After hearing them, one cannot walk away without strong determination to take action and make necessary changes; that is what our country – our global society – truly needs.

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To kick off the Science Symposium, Dr. Ted Schettler gave a general overview of our Environmental Health entitled “In Harm’s Way.” Dr. Schettler’s speech was not geared directly at ASD, but moreso at our general and overall health as a global community.

Dr. Schettler started out by sharing that from the moment of conception, genes and environment are in conversation and it would make no sense to think of them separately, which led him to discuss “Epigenetics” briefly (see review of Dr. Herbert’s talk for a brief definition) and then a “unique window of vulnerability.” In this window, early exposure to childhood health impairments and illnesses can impact one’s health throughout their life and late in life.

For example, Dr. Schettler shared that studies now show that babies with low birth weight are at much higher risk for Diabetes in mid-life and Dementia in later life. He stated that the eco-social-health framework extends to the sub-cellular level. He addressed chemical exposure (via the CDC 2009 report of chemicals found in representative of US population and the Environmental Working Group “Body Burden” study on newborn infant cord blood,) and our food environment (especially the US pro-inflammatory diet of highly refined sugars, high saturated fats, high refined carbs and unbalanced ratio of Omega 6-to-Omega 3 fatty acids.) Dr. Schettler stated that our diet over the last 100 years is so markedly different that it is setting the stage for other environmental factors to affect development of disease and chronic illnesses like never before.

Dr. Schettler also discussed how socio-economic status is also a high-risk factor for disease due to increased exposure to hazards, increased susceptibility and decreased capacity to cope. When addressing chemicals, Dr. Schettler stated that we are primarily ignorant about most chemicals used in our society and their effects on our bodies.

He shared that we know a lot (encouraging!), but only about a very few chemicals (not so encouraging). Dr. Schettler suggested that we need to look at vulnerable groups and “put the risk assessors’ feet to the fire” to look at the environment and how it influences our health status. He encouraged that we look for cross-cutting, upstream solutions to transform our food system and consumer economy and suggested that in order to do this…we will need to change public policy. (Again, this is where my dream about President Obama hearing these speakers comes into play…)

To be blunt, I was left feeling quite discouraged that Ms. Lewis and Mr. Dale were not present to hear this cutting-edge information. Honestly, I was also a little disheartened with my fellow conference attendees as a whole unit; when I counted the number of people in the Science Symposium at one point that morning, there were fewer than 40 people. With a very full conference (at one point I think I heard 2000 attendees), I couldn’t believe more people were not ready to learn HOW and WHY our children are the sickest generation ever and HOW to start to take action to help our next generation of susceptible children. But I digress…

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Dr. Martha Herbert spoke next on the topic of “Environmental Health and Autism.” What I would give for everyone…every parent…every doctor…every teacher…every therapist…every politician…every leader of every country in the world…to hear Dr. Herbert speak! For more information about Dr. Herbert’s research, please visit the Transcend Research Group website; this is a doctor who truly cares and is working to make a difference in our community!)

Dr. Herbert discussed how Autism is more than a brain disorder – it is a whole body disorder. Dr. Herbert noted that this is something that Leo Kanner, the doctor who first coined the term Autism, mentioned in his case notes back in the 1940s. Dr. Herbert also addressed that what we see in Autism is what we would expect to see in a condition heavily modulated by the environment. She also shared (thankfully) that there are things we can do.

New-to-nature (or man-made) chemicals have risen exponentially in the last 100 years, according to Dr. Herbert. She, like Dr. Schettler, referred to the Environmental Working Group’s cord blood “Body Burden” study to demonstrate that fetuses are being inundated with dangerous chemicals during critical development in the womb! Only about 20% of chemicals have any sort of data, even very minute data, on neuro-developmental effects on humans, much less on vulnerable infants and young children.

Further, Dr. Herbert shared information about how the environment is altering the expression of our genes (also known as “Epigenitics”) in ways that affect the gene expression throughout our lifetime.

It has been suggested, by 1360 UN scientists, that the damage to our ecosystem is so severe here on earth, that we can no longer be confident that humans will be able to survive (in a healthful way) for more than two generations. Two generations! Somehow though, news of this study never made it to the nightly news…at least not here in the US. This is scary folks!

We must take the role of the environment in all health issues, not just Autism, very seriously. It is often said that our children with ASD are “canaries in the coal mine”; that their illnesses are a warning to the rest of us (as coal miners) to “get out now” before we all die of toxic exposure.

Those of you who follow my blog know that this: the environment and toxins in our everyday lives, is one of my passions; you can read my previous articles here, here, here and here about things we can do. I feel that if we can start making necessary changes now to our environments, especially to the direct environments of the highly susceptible fetuses – infants – toddlers – young children, I think we might have a chance to reverse this epidemic of Autism, and possibly…hopefully…the ability to inhabit this earth for more than two future generations.

Leigh continues her review of the Science Symposium in Part 2.

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