Expert Insights with Dr. Melillo on Autism Prevention
Recently I had a chance to learn more about Dr. Robert Melillo, his research on Autism and his work with Brain Balance Centers. Here’s what he had to say about what he is doing and what his research has revealed.
eNannySource: What are the signs of Autism and when can they be detected?
Dr. Melillo: The earliest signs of Autism are when children have significantly delayed developmental milestones or they miss developmental milestones, especially motor milestones. If they don’t roll over at three to five months equally on both sides, if they don’t crawl right or enough or if they walk or talk late, these are very significant indicators and they need to be addressed as soon as possible. If you intervene at six months old, you may be able to make a huge difference in a couple of weeks or months. Whereas at six years old it may take six months, and at 12 years it may take a year or more and becomes much harder to correct. If the child has many immune or dietary issues, bowel problems or if he is very colicky and irritable, these are also early warning signs. Also, it has been shown that we can document good eye contact and nonverbal communication between a child and mother at one month. Many women instinctively know if this is right or not in their baby, especially if they have had other children that developed properly. Mothers tell me all the time they felt “disconnected” from their child with a disability. Also, if a child has a real unevenness of skills, where they have certain skills that are exceptional but they seem very behind in other skills, this is also a big clue. If caregivers notice any of these things, I think they should educate themselves. I think Disconnected Kids is the first thing they should read, as it will give them hope. Then they should go to my website or they should try to find a specialist in Functional Neurology (International Association of Functional Neurology and Rehabilitation) or Functional Medicine (Institute for Functional Medicine) in their local area.
eNannySource: Can autism be prevented?
Dr. Melillo: This is the whole point of my book. Ultimately, if Autism is an environmentally-based and driven disorder, then the answer is prevention. If we can identify and measure as many risk factors as possible in an individual before they become pregnant, or even during the pregnancy, and if we know what the “safe” levels are of that environmental factor, then we can do something to reduce that risk factor and we can measure that. When we get all of the risk factors we can measure and effect into a safe level, then we know that we have lowered the risk of having a child with a disability like Autism. There are no guarantees that it will prevent Autism, but you have reduced the risk significantly, and that is all you can do. As we do more research, which we are doing in my lab, we will be able to have more definitive information. In my book, I go through a Ten Point Preconception/Prenatal plan for a prospective parent to follow. I think it is the best thing produced yet in this area of science and medicine, and it will only get better as I perfect this program in time.
eNannySource: How does diet affect behavior?
Dr. Melillo: In Autism and other neurobehavioral issues like ADHD, diet does play a significant role in creating and exacerbating symptoms. Almost all children with Autism, ADHD and learning disabilities have food sensitivities. However, the makeup of these sensitivities is different in each child. Identifying and eliminating foods that a child is sensitive to is very important; these food reactions often lead to more severe immune responses and create inflammation in the child’s body and brain. These children almost always have what is known as “leaky gut” syndrome, where foods that are not fully digested can get through the gut lining and come in contact with the immune system, triggering an immune response and creating inflammatory chemicals that can affect the child’s behavior and learning ability. This “leaky gut” problem has been known about for years by Functional Neurology and Functional Medicine physicians. However, only just this past year did the American Pediatrics Association admit that they recognized these gut problems in children with Autism, that it was a significant source of symptoms and that it should be addressed. However, what most professionals and parents don’t realize is that the actual cause of this “leaky gut” and the food sensitivities that result along with vitamin and mineral deficiencies because of malabsorption can all be explained as a result of a primary imbalance in the brain and nervous system. The brain controls everything, and a problem with the brain and its regulation of the immune and digestive systems can result in all of the dietary and nutritional issues we see in these children. Therefore dietary and nutritional interventions, although helpful to manage symptoms, are only temporary if the imbalances in the brain are not addressed. The right and left brain control the immune response differently, and they regulate the autonomic system, which is the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems that control the gut and can affect the production of acid, blood flow and muscular contractions. I know this because I personally, along with our Brain Balance Centers, have worked with over 10,000 children, and every one of them has had a blood test measuring their food reactions and vitamin, mineral and amino acid levels. Virtually all of them have some sensitivities; some have one or two, but others have 40 or more. After they have done the Brain Balance Program, we see that in 90% of these children their food sensitivities are reduced or completely eliminated and their deficiencies are gone. They no longer have to be on special diets or vitamins.
eNannySource: Top common myths related to autism?
Dr. Melillo: One myth is that these problems are caused by known genetic mutations and that there is nothing that can be done to reverse these issues. This is incorrect and wrong. In the first chapter of my new book I explain that we are seeing “real” increases in the number of new kids being diagnosed with these disorders, not just recognizing or “over diagnosing” these issues. Based on the fact that we are seeing a dramatic increase in such a short period of time, the cause of the increase must be environmental, as we cannot explain such an increase in purely genetic terms. There is no such thing as a genetic epidemic; genetic mutations take generations or thousands of years to have a big impact on traits. There is no one environmental factor, there are many. Pesticides, antibiotics in our food, hormones, drugs in our water supply, chemicals in our environment; these are certainly some of the factors, but the most important factors are believed to be what we call lifestyle factors. Things like blood pressure, obesity, exercise, diet and stress levels play the most significant roles. I think the main change that has occurred over the past 30 years is the change in physical activity levels at younger and younger ages. This is being driven by technology and computers and the advancement of their popularity. Computer games, video, TV, social media – all of these activities have exploded over the past 30 years, and each year it becomes more pervasive in our lives. The average child 10 years ago had a couple of hours of screen time a day, and that was purely TV and video games. Now they are spending 10 hours a day on average, which includes Ipads, computers, phones and all of these devices. What they are reducing as they increase this number is the numbers of hours they spend moving their bodies and interacting with their environment and other people. This has an effect on adults because it increases obesity and all of these other chronic illnesses. It also increases inflammation stress hormones in our bodies and activates the immune system, which can lead to autoimmunity. In children, this reduced activity is also leading to obesity and other health issues, but the main effect on the child is that it affects their brain development. It results in a slowed and unbalanced development of the brain, especially the two hemispheres which develop in stages. This can lead to a left or right brain developmental delay, which ultimately is what is happening in the brain of a child with Autism, ADHD, Dyslexia, etc.
The other myth is that there is some sort of damage or brain injury in these children. This is also wrong; the thing that is so confusing about these conditions is that there is nothing obviously wrong in the brain. It looks basically normal except that there are areas of the brain that seem to be maturing at different rates. Some areas of the brain are not growing as they should, but they are not damaged. Some areas look more mature while others look immature, and this imbalance is actually the cause of the majority of the symptoms. What we see is that they have certain skills that are advanced, while others are delayed. The more unbalanced these skills are, the more severe the problem. Correcting this imbalance is the answer to these problems; there is no damage or injury to the brain, so there is no reason why we can’t correct these imbalances.
eNannySource: Best advice for parents or caregivers of children with autism?
Dr. Melillo: Educate yourself. Very few people in health professions or in education have any idea what is actually happening in the brains of these children. If you don’t know what the problem is, then you don’t know the best answer either. I think the first thing they should do is get my books, Disconnected Kids and Reconnected Kids.
eNannySource: Anything else you’d like to share?
Dr. Melillo: The research clearly seems to support the fact that Autism really starts in the womb before birth, and that it continues to develop after birth; both are happening at the same time to different degrees. This is why we believe that it is environmental and developmental. It looks like it is genetic, but it isn’t primarily due to a genetic mutation. Environmental factors are effecting the expression of genes before and after birth. The genes most commonly affected are those that build functional connections in the brain, especially between the two hemispheres. We know in all of these developmental disorders, especially Autism, the main characteristic that we can see and measure in their brain is that they have fewer connections between the two hemispheres of the brain. They also functionally seem to have certain skills that are much better than others in their brain and body. This is why it seems that this imbalance in brain development is affecting the connectivity in the brain and produces the unique mixture of strengths and weaknesses that we see in all of these disorders. In Autism and ADHD we think it is a right hemisphere delay, and in Dyslexia and learning disabilities it is the opposite. The reason for the differences is because the two sides of the brain develop at different stages; the right hemisphere skills develop in the womb and for the first two to three years, then it switches to the left for two to three years. So, if a negative environmental influence or factor interacts with the genes that build brain connections at a particular time in development and the child has certain natural strengths more on one side of the brain, all of this comes together to produce these disorders. I believe that these can all be prevented, but if it isn’t prevented all hope is not lost; we can reverse all of these to various degrees, and in most cases we can completely correct them. This is what I discussed in my first and second books, Disconnected Kids and Reconnected Kids, and what we do in our 60 plus Brain Balance Achievement Centers.
Dr. Robert Melillo is an internationally known lecturer, author, educator, researcher and clinician in the areas of neurology, rehabilitation, neuropsychology and neurobehavioral disorders in children, including Autism. He’s also an expert in nutrition, with more than 20 years of clinical experience.
Dr. Melillo’s 4th book, The Scientific Truth About Preventing, Diagnosing and Treating Autism Spectrum Disorders — and What Parents Can Do Now, gives a clear and compassionate explanation of the causes of the autism epidemic—and a scientifically based approach for prevention and treatment. To learn more, visit Dr. Melillo’s website www.drrobertmelillo.com or the Brain Balance website www.brainbalancecenters.com.