By BENISON O’RIELLY
Why does my child have autism?
It’s the difficult question that thousands of parents have asked. And it’s one with no easy answers.
But tell that to a celebrity “health expert”.
Lacking the knowledge to know what they don’t know, these people confidently —and with monotonous regularity — wade in with their opinions on incredibly complex health conditions, spouting simplistic theories, offering hokey solutions and causing no end of mischief.
The latest: Pete Evans, celebrity chef from Channel 7’s My Kitchen Rules and self-appointed Paleo diet expert. In a recent Facebook rant against the Heart Foundation and the Dietitians Association of Australia (DAA), reported earlier by Mamamia, Mr Evans said this:
Why has our rate of autism jumped from 1 in 10000 children in 1974, to 1 in 50 in 2014, where do you think it will be in another 40 years if it is escalating at this rate? This has grown rapidly since the guidelines have been in place!
Oh, so that explains why my son has autism. It’s all due to his diet. I wonder why the thousands of autism researchers around the world didn’t think of that? Who knew they’d all been wasting their time with their genetic studies and brain imaging and early intervention when all they had to do was ask a celebrity chef.
The quote Pete posted on Facebook
Do you detect sarcasm? Well, Mr Evans, here are the facts about autism as we know them:
Autism is strongly genetic: if you have one child with autism you have much higher chance of having another, somewhere in the range of 10%, as opposed to 1% for the general population. However, it is not completely genetic. It may be that a child has a genetic predisposition to autism but it may not develop unless something else tips them over the edge.
Here are some ‘tip’ factors that can slightly increase your risk of having a child with autism — either you or your partner being over 40, an infection during pregnancy, obesity in pregnancy, extreme stress while pregnant (there was a spike in autism cases in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina), gestational diabetes, premature babies, twins, birth complications, having two babies close together and, possibly, exposure to environmental pollution.
As I said, it’s incredibly complex.
However, if Mr Evans decided to investigate he would have found the real reason for the dramatic rise in autism prevalence is actually pretty simple: we’re getting better at recognising the disorder. Couple that with the widening of the goalposts in 1994 to include Asperger’s disorder under the label, and we can explain most of the rise.
Does diet play a role in autism? Certainly some (but by no means all) autism parents report that their children’s symptoms improve if they remove gluten and dairy from their diets. Obese, diabetic mothers are marginally more likely to have babies with autism. Also, researchers are looking into the role of gut bacteria contributing to rare cases of regressive autism. However, even if established, it’s likely these factors would account for a fraction of autism cases diagnosed each year.
Here’s Pete talking about Paelo on Sunrise:
Post continues after video
Pete Evans has apparently completed a year-long internet course in integrative nutrition which requires no prerequisite scientific training, yet he chooses to take on academics and researchers who have dedicated entire professional lives to their chosen field. I also notice he has affiliations with the MINDD Foundation, a group which has long promoted dietary treatments for autism, and — at least when I attended a dinner hosted by them a few years ago — was still attached to the discredited ‘vaccines cause autism’ theory.
When I posted Mr Evans’ comment on the Australian Autism Handbook Facebook page there was a collective groan from the parents. We’re sick of the ignorant offering simplistic solutions to complex issues. We’re sick of autism being the bogeyman disease used to frighten vulnerable parents. And we’re sick of people blaming us for our kids’ autism.
If Pete Evans wants to take on the Heart Foundation and the DAA that’s his prerogative, but when he wades into my turf, that’s when I get mad.
Benison O’Reilly is co-author of the bestselling The Australian Autism Handbook (Jane Curry Publishing) and the mother of a boy with autism.