I am a mom concerned about autism, and I am a clean air activist. And I think the two things are connected.
On March 1st of this year, a new research study connecting autism and air pollution was published in Environmental Health Perspectives, a peer-reviewed journal published by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. The largest of its kind, this study shows a correlation between autism and prenatal exposure to air pollution. With autism in the United States rising at dramatic rates over the past two decades, this study shows that air pollution may be an important contributing factor to the development of autism.
In the summer of 2010, my son Park turned 2 and I noticed he was pulling at his ears. I suspected an ear infection, so I made an appointment to visit his pediatrician. It was his first visit in over a year and I looked forward to it despite the circumstances. We didn’t regularly visit the clinic because (fortunately) Park rarely ever got sick, a fact I’d been quite proud of. The pediatrician sat on the floor and attempted communicating with my son. She peered up at me with hesitancy and suggested I not delay in making an appointment with a specialist because she suspected autism. At that moment in time, I felt my heart drop to the floor. This was when I began what can only be described as a mourning process for my son. Along with being the start of a challenging period in our lives, I am grateful. It is the reason I share this story, and the ultimate reason behind my quest for clean air.
Utah has the highest rates of autism in the United States. Years before entering motherhood, I worked with children who suffered from developmental delays and disorders, many of whom had Autism Spectrum Disorder. I learned that researchers and doctors knew little about what caused it. They did know that genetics can’t explain all cases and, according to the Center for Disease Control, vaccine exposure is not a factor. However, I noticed that we cared for multiple children on the spectrum from the same families. If it wasn’t all genetic, I wondered whether something shared in the children’s environment was triggering the disorder.
While I was working with these beautiful children, I also learned of Utah’s crippling periods of poor air quality. If memory serves me correct, I made a vow to try to avoid starting a family in Utah for fear of the effects our air would have on my babies. However, my love for this state and my fortune in finding my husband kept me here. Utah is where we began our family.
Following the initial shock we experienced from hearing the suggestion that our son has autism, we began a series of therapies. We immediately enrolled him in our state’s Early Intervention Program. I took a closer look at his diet and tested him for food allergies and intolerances, made changes in his food intake, worked diligently with his attention at home, and administered rounds of gentle heavy metal detoxes. While I cannot pinpoint exactly what change we made with Park that began to bring him back to us, I can tell you that it did happen…and that it was in a matter of a few short weeks.
I remember the day he brought books over to me to read to him, something he hadn’t had the attention for in over a year’s time. I remember when he began to look at us once again when we spoke, something he refused to also do since he was only a year old. I remember how he became less fascinated with wheels turning and more fascinated with socializing with other kids. And I remember when he quit inflicting pain upon himself such as banging his little toddler head on our hardwood floors and hitting his face. We were incredibly fortunate.
Of course, we couldn’t change the air he was breathing. Did Utah’s air pollution contribute to Park’s symptoms? How many other children are being affected by their exposure to this pollution?
I tear up reliving the experience we had with our son, Park. For the autistic children and their families whose healing wasn’t as quick as ours or hasn’t come, this is especially for you. My heart will forever be reaching in your direction.
I am currently pregnant, and following an especially toxic winter in the Salt Lake Valley, I feel highly vulnerable now more than ever for the health and well being of my babies. Air pollution is toxic and our children deserve every opportunity to live healthy, normal lives.