Pediatric neurologist Martha Herbert, MD, PhD, of Harvard... came out with the seminal paper describing the new view of autism as a complex, multisystemic condition in Clinical Neuropsychiatry in 2005. Autism had long been associated with physical ills — especially gastrointestinal discomfort — but Herbert pointed to an association with immune issues and multiple other problems whose biological underpinnings had yet to be learned.

As far as she was concerned, the “heterogeneous biologies” underlying autism might converge through a variety of mechanisms, in the brain. By the next year Herbert had refined her hypothesis: She said that vulnerable genes triggered by environmental insults might be perturbing metabolic pathways and damaging the brain.

This was a whole new way of looking at autism. But there was an even bigger implied bombshell: By unlocking autism’s complex code, scientists might have new hope for treating other chronic disorders, from asthma and allergies to obesity.

“Autism is a hologram for chronic disease. In it is reflected all the causes and cures for chronic disease,” explains Mark Hyman, MD, an expert in functional medicine and author of The UltraMind Solution (Scribner, 2008). “Remove the diagnostic labels from a patient with autism and a patient with Alzheimer’s, and you will discover the same biological forces at work” — inflammation, oxidative stress, impaired protein synthesis and detoxification, mitochondrial dysfunction, and damaged DNA.”

Translation? Autism might just be our wake-up call. Some experts now posit that individuals with autism are early indicators — canaries in a coal mine of pervasive health threats that are affecting increasing numbers of us. If we can unravel the immune, metabolic and genetic problems at play, we may have a head start in treating not just autism but a great many other chronic and environmentally triggered forms of disease.

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