Autism: Canary in the Coal Mine

coalmine“Nonright-handedness (NRH) has been attributed to hypoxia-induced brain changes in the fetus and associated pregnancy and birth complications (PBCs). Maternal smoking during pregnancy is known to produce prenatal hypoxia for the fetus, which may result in low birth weight and other PBCs. It was hypothesized that maternal smoking during pregnancy results in a leftward shift of handedness in the offspring. This study compared the distribution of handedness in the offspring of mothers who did and did not smoke cigarettes during pregnancy. Information on maternal smoking, handedness, and PBCs was analyzed for 803 university students. There was a significant shift to the left in the distribution of handedness scores for the offspring of smoking mothers (N = 216), as compared to those of nonsmoking mothers (N = 587). Offspring of smoking mothers also reported significantly more PBCs. Results are consistent with the hypothesis that NRH is associated with pathological neurodevelopment.” (Bakan P. (1991) Handedness and maternal smoking during pregnancy. Int J Neurosci 56 (1-4): 161)

I’m starting to see pieces on the web suggesting that lowering a mother’s testosterone levels might mitigate the chances of autism. A piece by Baron-Cohen suggested that it would be a very bad idea to approach autism as a disease that can be prevented via foeticide. (See Autism Is Not Cancer)

I’ve outlined in essays on this website a number of different ways that testosterone is managed or manipulated by the various circumstances in our life. In 1998, I noted the connection between a mother’s uterine testosterone levels and conditions informed by maturational delay and acceleration that included autism. Then, as now, I maintain a respect and reverence for the humans that experience the world through this condition.

“The fundamental pattern of the brain thus appears to be asymmetrical, with the same pattern of asymmetries found in most adults. There are, however, influences in pregnancy that tend to diminish the extent of left-sided predominance, at least in the regions involved in handedness and language, and thus secondarily to result in larger regions on the right side. As noted earlier, our hypothesis is that some factor related to male sex, perhaps testosterone or some closely related factor, is the most likely candidate. The net effect of these intrauterine influences is to produce a shift from left predominance to symmetry, and in a smaller number of cases to modest right predominance.” (Geschwind & Galaburda 1987: 46, Cerebral Lateralization)

A discussion has not yet begun that addresses how life style changes influence hormone levels that may influence autism. I’m feeling more than a little uncomfortable with the notion that women will seek either to lower testosterone rates or abort potential autistic children. I would expect that the neurodiversity movement will violently oppose foeticide and hormone manipulation interventions. I foresee major struggles regarding these issues.

“To determine whether ethanol per se affects testosterone metabolism, alcohol was administered to normal male volunteers for periods up to four weeks, resulting in an initial dampening of the episodic bursts of testosterone secretion followed by decreases in both the mean plasma concentration and the production rate of testosterone. The volunteers received adequate nutrition and none lost weight during the study, which tended to exclude a nutritional disturbance as the cause of the decreased testosterone levels. The changes in plasma luteinizing hormone suggested both a central (hypothalamus-pituitary) and gonadal effect of alcohol. In addition, alcohol consumption increased the metabolic clearance rate of testosterone in most subjects studied, probably owing to the combined effects of a decreased plasma binding capacity for the androgen and increased hepatic testosterone A-ring reductase activity. These results indicate that alcohol markedly affects testosterone metabolism independently of cirrhosis or nutritional factors.” (Gordon, G. G., Altman, K., Southren, A. L., Rubin, E. and Lieber, C. S. (1976) Effect of alcohol (ethanol) administration on sex-hormone metabolism in normal men. N Engl J Med 295 (15): 793)

I’ve hypothesized that diet, touch, rhythm, dance and perhaps performance are the foundation of what is required for a child born of a mother with high testosterone levels. I estimate that the classic pre-agricultural Neolithic diet is right for the male maturational delayed, female maturational accelerated body. Constant touch keeps these unique children in constant contact. Rhythm is the lifeblood of these pattern-compulsive personalities. The rhythm ties them to the others that are engaged in the rhythms in their lives.

The idea is not to make the autistic child normal. We can seek to make it possible for the autistic child to become what they are naturally inclined to be. The evolutionary theory that this website often discusses has its foundation in an understanding that the autistic are emerging in a society behaving in deeply inappropriate ways for autistic health. Our society is changing. It is my belief that it is changing in the direction of becoming a healthier environment for the autistic and neurotypicals. Still, it is necessary to understand the context of autism, the ways that humans have evolved, to understand the ways the world would best nourish the autistic. Neurotypicals may profit handsomely from these insights. Understanding health for an autistic child is to understand foundations for human health.

“Theoretical speculation in humans (S. F Witelson, Psychoneuroendocrinology 16 (1991) 131-153) and empirical findings in animals (R. H. Fitch, P. E. Cowell, L. M. Schrott, V. H. Denenberg, Int. J. Dev. Neurosci. 9 (1991) 35-38) suggest that testosterone (T) may play a significant role in the development of the corpus callosum (CC). However, there are currently no empirical studies directly relating T concentrations to callosal morphology in humans. The purpose of the present study was to investigate the relationship between free T concentrations as determined by radioimmunoassay, and the mid-sagittal area of the corpus callosum, as determined by magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Subjects were 68 young adult (20-35 years), neurologically normal, right-handed males. All subjects underwent MRI and provided two samples of saliva for radioimmunoassay of T and cortisol. Anatomical regions of interest included total brain volume, left and right hemisphere volume and regional areas of the CC. CC regions were defined using two different measurement techniques, each dividing the CC into six sub-sections. Anatomical measurements were performed blind with respect to the hormone levels of subjects. A significant positive correlation between T concentration and cross-sectional area of the posterior body of the CC was found. This finding was consistent across the two measurement techniques and was not attributable to individual differences in total brain volume. All correlations between cortisol and CC sub-regions were non-significant. The results of this study are consistent with the notion that T, at an earlier stage in development, may play a significant role in modulating cortical/callosal architecture in humans.” (Moffat, S. D, Hampson, E., Wickett, J. C., Vernon, P. A., Lee, D. H. (1997) Testosterone is correlated with regional morphology of the human corpus callosum. Brain Res 767 (2):297)

There is a canary in this coal mine, a signal to society as we navigate the passageways of society’s Great Recession and the toppling of our hierarchical conventions. That singing bird is our autistic. Understanding autism, we understand ourselves. Not only are we notified of dangerous paths by those environments deleterious to our autistic, but maybe we can allow ourselves to be guided forward by what we learn about ourselves learning about our autistic.

As Baron-Cohen noted, autism is not a cancer. Autism is not a disease. Autism is quite possibly an integral part of human illumination. Understanding our origins, we understand ourselves. In autism is an understanding of how we came to be.

Proceed to author’s FREE book download on this subject (The book is called Evolution, Autism and Social Change). 10 minute introductory video here.

on 12/30/09 in featured, Society | No Comments | Read More

Leave a Reply