While the causes of autism remain elusive, there are steps parents and parents-to-be can take to foster a healthy environment before and during pregnancy and in a child’s first years. During a presentation to the NAA NY Metro Chapter in collaboration with Beth Israel Medical Center’s Department of Developmental Pediatrics, Nancy O’Hara, M.D., of the Center for Autism and Integrative Health, in Wilton, CT, provided a broad overview of preventing harm and fostering a healthy environment before, during, and after pregnancy.
Dara Berger, Co-Chair of the NAA NY Metro Chapter’s Parent Mentoring Committee, introduced Dr. O’Hara and spoke of the help and guidance she received from Dr. O’Hara on her journey to have a second child after her first child was diagnosed with ASD.
Dr. O’Hara covered a wide range of topics, including oxidative stress, nutrition, vaccination, and interventions. She said that this generation of children is sicker than previous ones and that early intervention, particularly during the first years of life is critical in preventing further harm.
She explained that prevention should begin before a woman decides to get pregnant. Checking the medical history and the physical condition of the mother and first-degree relatives to look for potential risks is a first step in creating a good foundation and addressing potential problems. For instance, a woman with 6 or more amalgam dental fillings should consult with a dentist well-trained in removing amalgams and consider replacing her amalgams with less toxic fillings at least 3 months before becoming pregnant.
During pregnancy, it is important to continue the preconception lifestyle changes and address “the needs and physiological changes associated with pregnancy,” Dr. O’Hara said. These include increasing calories, protein, iron, folate, and other changes in diet. Daily intake of calcium and vitamin D are also very important for bone health, enzyme activity, and muscle contraction. A deficiency in the mother may transfer to the child, and Dr. O’Hara cited that an estimated 60-70% of autistic children have deficiency of vitamin D.
It is also crucial to weigh the risks vs. the benefits of using any medication during delivery. Then, post-delivery it is recommended to begin breastfeeding as soon as possible and to further continue the initial changes. Dr. O’Hara recommended breastfeeding for as long as possible and delaying the introduction of solid foods until at least 6 months of age. As an example for one of the best first foods, Dr. O’Hara recommended avocado for its high nutrition content and fatty acids. As the child grows, it is very important to maintain a healthy diet with fresh and varied foods, organic when possible.
Dr. O’Hara argued that, in addition to genetic susceptibility from the parents, during pregnancy the developing fetus is exposed to essentially everything the mother is exposed to, which may include maternal toxins, vaccinations, antibiotics, food antigens, and infections. Many of these and similar exposures continue in infancy and early childhood.
After the presentation, Dr. O’Hara answered many questions from the audience, which included parents of ASD children, young couples planning to have children, and medical professionals. For more information and guidance, visit Dr. O’Hara’s website.
* I wrote this article for the National Autism Association – New York Metro Chapter.