News and Notes from The Johnson Center

A visit from Dr. Martha Herbert, author of The Autism Revolution

JCCHD | Thu, May 03, 2012 | [Autism Treatment][Community][Events]

Dr. Martha Herbert book signing event - April 2012

The Johnson Center was honored last week by a visit from Dr. Martha Herbert, presenting her new book, The Autism Revolution. Dr. Herbert is an assistant professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School and a pediatric neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital. Co-written with Karen Weintraub, Dr. Herbert described the writing partnership as a perfect match.

A number of lucky parents and professionals from the Austin area listened as Dr. Herbert described the events that led her to write The Autism Revolution.  Because of the number of articles she has written about autism as a whole-body condition, Harvard Health Publications approached her about writing a book; she saw the opportunity to share her viewpoints and the research that supports her basic ideas—ideas that all of us at The Johnson Center have seen make a significant difference in the lives of people with autism.

Dr. Herbert began her talk by stating that autism is not just a brain condition; rather it is a condition defined by behaviors, communication issues, social interaction issues, and repetitive and restrictive behaviors and interests. Some on the spectrum also suffer from seizures, cognitive deficits, sensory motor issues like clumsiness and low tone, sleep issues, GI distress, food allergies, and metabolic malfunction. She spoke about the importance of looking at autism in a more encompassing way. She stressed that the time has come for everyone in our country to have an understanding of how to address basic quality-of-life issues through a high-nutrient-density and low-allergen diet. She talked about the importance of recognizing how the chemistry and immune interactions in the brain are shaped by the health of the whole body, and that we should see these ‘wiring’ systems as having obstructions, as opposed to being a broken system.

Delving deeper into the brain-immune connections that are present in people with autism, Dr. Herbert said, “We have often seen web-like connections between how GI, allergy, or sleep issues can affect behaviors.”  She referred to the ancient roots of systems biology, and how this approach is becoming relevant today when looking at how these networks interrelate.

Dr. Herbert addressed the idea of reductionism: breaking things down to their fundamental units. Further supporting her whole-body approach, she talked about approaching different issues piece by piece, so that you can begin to take away the total load that your child is carrying.  The Ziggurat Model was used to show the idea that the visible symptoms (behaviors) indicate only a small portion of the causative problems, much as the visible part of an iceberg does not indicate its volume. She pointed out that there are underlying functional disturbances that we can’t see with the naked eye (i.e. under the skin, brain cells, gut wall lining, individual molecules, etc.). The idea is that the underlying functional disturbances are the source of the visible symptoms, and that you might be able to change behaviors by changing those things that we don’t see on the surface.

Asking her listeners to visualize a microscope, Dr. Herbert commented that this metaphorical tool allows us to view our body systems at many different levels of integration. If you are zoomed in, you can “see” the tiniest levels such as genes and molecular connections.  Zoom out a bit more and you begin to see cells and their organelles, and even cells in groups, or tissues. Zoom out even more and you see a different picture: organs like your liver, brain, and gut. Dr. Herbert reminded us that all of these things are alive and working at the same time, and your perspective can change depending on how far you are “zoomed in or out.” Things that we can see with the naked eye like behavior, learning, and social interactions are all shaped by the overall health of the body, and that’s why as a practitioner she recommends the whole-body approach. She stressed that taking into consideration any one level is not enough by itself.

The staff at the Johnson Center was excited to host this event for our community, and we look forward to our continued collaboration with Dr. Herbert.

The Autism Revolution puts forth a philosophy and treatment approach based in common sense: clean up the child’s environment and diet, address medical needs through comprehensive assessment, and utilize effective educational and behavioral methods for teaching. The book is receiving excellent reviews for its balanced and practical perspective on autism and intervention. We have copies available at our office; this book is a must-read for parents, caregivers, and professionals working within the autism community.