My nine-year-old son was diagnosed at age four with selective mutism, a psychological anxiety disorder that is characterized by the sufferer’s inability to speak in certain situations. My son speaks normally at home and some familiar situations, but doesn’t speak in school, around strangers, or around many people that he actually knows well and feels comfortable with. In my previous article (July 15), I talked about my belief that selective mutism is related to autism: they share similar symptoms; neither has a clearly effective treatment; and both have a widely varying “spectrum” of impact in children. Most significantly, both disorders are characterized by a disruption of the child’s ability to engage in appropriate social interaction. What are these disorders caused by, and can they be treated without medication, or even prevented? This month, we’ll begin to explore the factors behind the breakdown of social interaction and look at how you can start searching for answers for your own child.
I’ve had the opportunity to meet some of the experts at the forefront of the battle to unravel these kinds of disorders and learned that the place to start looking for answers to disorders in the mind is in the body.
First, a basic biology lesson brush-up: Remember that old song from kindergarten: “the ankle bone’s connected to the leg bone, the leg bone’s connected to the thigh bone…” (and on and on)? Everything in the body is connected, and one of the important factors to consider with these disorders is nutrition and the role of food allergies/intolerances. When you’re talking about the autism spectrum, the song would be more along the lines of “your gut’s connected to your hormones, your hormones are connected to your mood swings, your mood swings are connected to your gut”. Your gut’s job is to supply the fuel for your brain’s series of chemical reactions and neurotransmitters that are responsible for cognitive function and relating to the outside world. Naturally, an improperly fueled body can lead to dysfunction of the mind.
I spoke with Dr. Craig Jace, a clinical nutritionist (he’s also a Naturopathic Practitioner specializing in endocrinology, licensed acupuncturist, and Doctor of Oriental Medicine and Homeopathy). He says that both gluten from wheat and the casein found in dairy are the most common food allergies, and an intolerance to these foods can affect behavior and mood in a variety of ways, such as headaches, sleepiness, mood swings, brain fog, memory loss, etc.
How? The majority of the protein in cow’s milk is casein, which is broken down by the stomach into a peptide (a chain of amino acids) called casomorphine. Casomorphine can have an opiate like effect on the human brain (note the “morphine” part of the word), which can impact a child’s behavior, much like a sedative.
Also, both casein and gluten are large protein molecules that trigger the production of histamine, which in turn causes mucus production. Too much mucus in the gut not only prevents nutrients from being absorbed properly for use by the brain, it also creates a sort of gluey substance that attaches to the leftover food particles that aren’t being absorbed. The caught leftover particles then start to putrefy, and further block nutrients, which can lead to malnourishment. A child who is malnourished is going to have mood and behavior problems.
Why are these disorders occurring so much more recently than in the past?
From an anthropologic point of view, evolution is a slow, slow process of acclimating to the environment. According to Dr. Jace, “Hormones allow the body to change with the environment.” It seems like the environment has changed so suddenly during the last fifty years or so that autism and selective mutism may be a body’s way of trying to adapt to that change. Our bodies have to find some way to deal with all the preservatives that are being added to our food and water, the hormones and antibiotics in our meat, and the mercury in our fish, the chemicals in our household products, clothing materials, and plastics.
What can you do?
No selectively mute child is the same as others, no body is the same, no technique will be the same. The job of finding out exactly what your child may be allergic to or deficient in is a process of trial and error. It can be frustrating, but developing a support system of information and knowledge of options will help you gain control. If you suspect that your child may have a food allergy, talk to their pediatrician and map out a basic food elimination diet to determine what foods, if any, may be the culprit. It’s a good place to start. According to Dr. Jace, “A lot of food intolerances don’t show up on traditional testing. If you take away these foods for a few days and they whine and start to have temper tantrums, that’s a good sign (they’re allergic).” Usually, your body will develop a sort of “addiction” to the food it’s allergic to and will experience a “withdrawal” effect when the offending food is taken away.