Understanding “Autistic” Behaviours A Biomedical perspective

Viva Magazine

Written by: Dr. Sonya Doherty, N.D., Defeat Autism Now! practitioner

Recent research suggests that autism is not simply a mental health issues but rather a complicated neurobiological disorder.  This new research creates the opportunity for new treatments to help deal with common behavioural concerns commonly seen in autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Stereotypic or Self Stimulating

Stereotypical or self-stimulatory behaviour refers to repetitive body movements or repetitive movement of objects.  This behaviour is very common in many children with developmental disorders but occurs in higher prevalence in autism.  Children with autism are often overwhelmed by stimuli.  Their brains are unable to effectively process the information from the outside world and assimilate it in their brains.  This is the main cause of self stimulating behaviour.  A decreased ability to process information results in increased physical action in an attempt to “self stimulate” the brain to a higher level of processing.  Self stimulating behaviour can take many forms including:

  • Hand flapping
  • Jumping
  • Running
  • Staring at lights
  • Repetitive blinking
  • Moving fingers in front of eyes
  • Tapping ears
  • Snapping or rubbing fingers together
  • Making vocal sounds
  • Rocking back and forth  -OR- side to side
  • Rubbing skin with hands or object or scratching
  • Putting hands, body parts or objects in their mouth
  • Smelling or licking objects

Recent research is changing the way that medical professionals are viewing ASD.   The traditional held view that autism is a mental health issues is being challenged by new information about alterations in biochemistry and physiology in children with autism.  Self stimulating behaviour is a communication.  Biomedical treatment, or treatment focusing on increasing the developmental potential for every child, focuses on increasing “fuel” to the brain.  The methylation cycle, a cycle that happens in every cell in the body, is the target of extensive research.  Studies have shown that increasing the “fuel” to the brain by supporting the methylation cycle, results in increased language development.  When a baby is conceived, they are de-methylated.  As methylation occurs, so does methylation.  Support of the methylation cycle, primarily through B12 injections, can result in dramatic changes in language and communication.

Temper Tantrums

Temper tantrums or outbursts are very difficult for parents and children.  They also occur more frequently in children with ASD.  The key to helping children who are having frequent tantrums is to attempt to understand “what children are trying to say”.  Tantrums are a form of communication.  Children with ASD have impaired communication which can increase the frequency or intensity of tantrums.  We know that many children with autism understand more than they are able to communicate verbally.  The result is frustration.  As the level of frustration rises, so does a child’s propensity for tantrums.

There are many successful behavioural interventions for frequent or intense tantrums.  From a biomedical perspective, the answer is simple.  Increase a child’s ability to communicate his or her needs.  Research has shown that biomedical intervention can increase language and communication capacity in children with autism.  Treatment with B12 injections, B6 and magnesium, L-carnosine, essential fatty acids and diet intervention are all effective treatments for many children who have tantrums that impact their quality of life.

Digestive Pain

“Surveys published in the gastroenterology literature have stated that gastrointestinal problems, such as chronic constipation or diarrhea, occur in 46% to 85% of children with ASDs.”

Journal of Pediatrics – Scott M. Myers, MD

Many children with autism have digestive issues ranging from mild to severe.  Constipation, diarrhea, bloating and pain are all an unfortunate but common reality for many children with autism.  Digestive issues can be caused by a number of different factors.  It is important to have your child evaluated by a medical professional trained in treatment the physical aspects of autism spectrum disorder to address chronic digestive issues.

Posturing is when a child seeks relief from stomach or abdominal pain by leaning into something solid like furniture.  Children with pain often lean on couches, chairs, tables or lie on the ground, in an effort to put pressure on the abdominal area.  Posturing is a sign of an underlying bowel problem.

Children should have bowel movements on a daily basis.  When a child does not have a bowel movement every day the stool builds up and causes cramping and pain. Posturing is a way for children to relieve digestive discomfort.  Pain from inflammation in the digestive tract can cause children to display posturing behaviour.

Causes of digestive discomfort are varied and include:

  • Food allergies
  • Nutrient deficiencies
  • Infection
  • Inflammation
  • Enzyme deficiency
  • Dysbiosis – or an imbalance in the good bacteria of the digestive tract
  • Yeast overgrowth
  • Essential fatty acid deficiency

Treatment with essential fatty acids, anti-fungal and anti-microbial treatment, probiotics and diet therapy has been shown to help relieve abdominal discomfort in children with autism.

Head Banging

Head banging is very common in children with autism.  From a biomedical perspective, head banging is considered a sign or symptom of an underlying problem.  Pain and neurotransmitter imbalance are two common causes of head banging.  Children with pain will hit their heads in an attempt to decrease chronic pain signals to the brain.  Head pain can be caused by many different factors.  Inflammation is a common cause of head pain or headaches.  The intestines regulate inflammation and digestive problems can cause or contribute to head pain.  Assessing digestive issues is an important component of comprehensive biomedical treatment for behavioural issues.

Research has shown that levels of certain neurotransmitters are associated with self-injurious behaviour, like head banging.  Neurotransmitters are the way the brain communicates with itself and the rest of the body.   An imbalance of neurotransmitters can cause children to “bang” or “hit” their head in an attempt to self regulate these important brain chemicals.

Regulation of neurotransmitters in the brain is very complex.  Production of many neurotransmitters relies on a healthy digestive tract, so assessment and treatment of digestive dysfunction is imperative.  Other nutritional strategies include regulating the methylation cycle, which not only promotes development but also regulate important neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine.

As more research is done on the physiology and chemistry of children with autism, more will be found about why children with autism display so many unique behaviours.  It is important to understand what puts children at risk for developing behaviours that have a significant impact on quality of life.  In the meantime, there are treatments that can dramatically reduce or eliminate behaviours that have their roots in altered biochemistry, physiology or digestive imbalance.