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Toxicity may play a big part in autism. Follow our tips to create a safer built environment for your child.

As parents, we all desire both a healthy and safe environment for our children, regardless of their ages. As research has continued to explore the causes of autism, what seems to be a common thread is that increased toxicity in our environment is a core component necessary for the development of autism spectrum disorders (ASDs).

This knowledge and resultant concern is beginning to shape the environments that support these individuals on the spectrum. Fortunately, due largely to the “green” building movement, the building industry is already addressing several of the harmful toxins that have historically been used in construction materials. Beyond material content, in my professional opinion as both the mother of a child on the spectrum and a principal of an architectural firm, there are three strong components to making healthy and safe environments for individuals on the spectrum: elimination or reduction of toxic elements, implementation of physical safety elements, and development of spaces and spatial arrangements for individuals with autism that support good choices, address unique behavioral issues and support successful behavioral models . Eliminating or reducing toxic elements is one of the most important.

Toxic Times

Extensive research over the years has shown general health risks from harmful chemicals used in many building products and practices. On a daily basis, our world is exposed to a broad array of contaminants and impurities ranging from irritants to potentially harmful chemicals. There is growing medical evidence that even limited exposures to some of these chemicals may have serious health impacts on certain people. These impacts include respiratory problems, immune system dysfunction, damage to the kidneys and GI tract, neurological damage and related developmental problems, and in some cases, cancer. Extensive research remains to be done but current published studies seem to suggest a possible link between environmental exposure to certain toxins and the growing rates of autism in our population.

The Body Burden

In order to further understand the link between autism and toxicity, you need to understand how your body processes toxins. The term “body burden” is used to describe the total quantity of toxic chemicals that are present at any selected time in the human body. Roughly 80,000 different kinds of chemicals are used in the U.S. Some are naturally occurring; others are man-made and build up in the environment due to releases during production, and through industrial and consumer use.

Many of these toxins are more prevalent today than they were in past decades and centuries, and they end up in many places—including our bodies. We come into direct contact with such toxins in a variety of ways. We might inhale them, swallow them in food or water, or absorb them through the skin. Sometimes body burden can be examined in terms of a specific, single chemical like lead or mercury. Studies show that every one of us, from birth throughout life, is walking around with dozens of chemicals in our bodies. In some cases, several hundred have been reported to be measured in select people.

Toxins and Autism

Those with, or at risk for ASD or other chronic diseases, may be especially vulnerable to some toxins. Many children suffer from an impairment that reduces the body’s normal ability to get rid of toxins and heavy metals. Research has shown that build-up of such toxins in the body can lead to nervous system damage and developmental delays, and can even chronically affect brain function (see Overview of Possible Reported Health Risks for Children and Adults with ASD and Other Special Needs, at bottom).

Some individuals with autism are extremely sensitive and reactive to noxious substances. Research dollars have only recently started to support a more systematic evaluation of environmental toxins as possible risk factors for ASD. No “single cause” has emerged at the time of this article for the trigger of autism. In fact, there appears to be a convergence of environmental and genetic risks in which many potential contributors to autism can have similar effects. Thus, there is a need to take seriously the harm caused by various combinations of factors, and to develop more sophisticated knowledge, awareness, and precautionary steps to minimize exposure to these health risks.

Unhealthy Building Products

In some cases, man-made chemicals used in some building-related products have been linked to health risks for children and adults with ASD and other special needs. Some (not all) of these known and suspected health risks are summarized in our chart (Overview of Potentially Unhealthy Building Products for ASD individuals). This chart doesn’t, however, reference known health risks for all individuals, such as radon gas found in certain sites. It is intended to highlight areas of construction where there are known potential toxicants linked to possible health risks for ASD individuals. As manufacturers of materials continue to develop healthier products, initially triggered primarily by the green movement, and further respond to the concerns of parents of children with autism, this chart will evolve.

Research has shown that exposure to harmful chemicals could possibly lead to neural, gastrointestinal, respiratory, and/or immune dysfunction. Ongoing exposure to toxic chemicals may exacerbate these health issues. In understanding our surroundings, the chemical elements contained within them, and the impact of those elements on our physical and mental health, we can begin to help decrease the toxic levels within the built environments for our ASD children and adults.


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