Shortly after his second birthday, my son stopped talking. The onset of symptoms was just that abrupt. After nearly two years of visits to doctors and specialists, he was finally diagnosed with atypical autism.
Autism encompasses a spectrum of psychological disorders in which the use of language, reaction to stimuli, interpretation of the outside world, and the establishment of social relationships are difficult and unusual. One in 110 children have autism spectrum disorders (ASD), and males are more likely to have it than females.
Autism is a complex disease with no single known cause. The range of disorders that autism comprises is such that no two children who’ve been diagnosed with autism are the same. Autism arises from a mixture of genetic and environmental factors, which as of yet, have not been clearly delineated.
Epigenetics, a relatively new field in science, could help define the causes of Autism and offer up new modes of treatment for the disorder, as well as other diseases like cancer, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s and diabetes. Epigenetics is the study of gene expression governed by the epigenome, the cellular material that sits on top of our genetic code. The epigenome does not change the genetic code inscribed in our DNA; rather, it activates or silences genes through the mobilization of molecules called methyl groups. These chemical changes are triggered by our environment. Toxins, pollutants, changes in diet, deficiencies in prenatal nutrition, and exposure to stressors alters the way our genes are expressed through the epigenome. Furthermore, epigenetics has proven that these changes in gene expression are passed down to our offspring, for at least one generation. Epigenetics renders the argument of nature vs. nuture moot because it establishes that the two are are inextricably intertwined. In regards to human development, one is as important as the other.
We know that negative behaviors like smoking cigarettes, poor diet, or drinking access amounts of alcohol shortens our lifespan, but now epigenetics is confirming that these behaviors can predispose our children, and even our grandchildren, to similar diseases and decrease their longevity too.
Research in epigenetics reveals that both paternal and maternal toxic environmental exposures play a role in the development of disease in their offspring and future generations. Parental exposure to the popular herbicide Roundup has been linked to birth defects in their offspring. Vietnam veterans who were exposed to the herbicide agent orange, like my father was, pass on an increased risk for spina bifida and other diseases to their children. The prenatal nutrition of mothers has been shown to have an impact on an offspring’s risk of diabetes, stroke, and heart disease. A study on the eating habits of multiple generations of families in Sweden revealed that grandfathers who went from a normal diet to regularly overeating had grandsons who died an average of six years earlier than the grandsons of those who didn’t. The bottom line is this: your grandparents’ and parents’ behaviors, and any toxins or trauma they were exposed to, affects your health directly. Likewise, your behaviors and any toxins or trauma you’re exposed to could affect the health of your children and grandchildren.
Epigenetics may provide hard scientific evidence of intergenerational trauma among American Indians and link it directly to diseases that currently afflict us, like cancer and diabetes. The term “intergenerational trauma” has been used to describe the cumulative effects of trauma experienced by a group or individual that radiates across generations. For natives, intergenerational trauma has presented itself in the form of genocide, disease, poverty, forced assimilation via removal of children from their families to boarding schools, the seizure and environmental destruction of homelands, and other routes of European colonization. The effects of intergenerational trauma include substance abuse, depression, anxiety, and a variety of other emotional problems. Emotional stress has also shown to effect gene expression via the epigenome. Studies show that the withholding of affection by a mother elicits brain changes in her infant that impairs their response to stress as an adult.
Epigenetics offers remarkable potential for the prevention of disease among American Indians as well. We can use epigenetic inheritance to restore the action of our genetic code from one generation to the next. Once environmental stressors are removed and behavior is corrected, our DNA will revert to its original programming. We could cure diabetes through behavioral changes that allow our epigenome to operate correctly. The elimination of toxins and pollutants could greatly reduce the incidence of cancer and birth defects. Such modification of environmental exposures and behaviors will restore and even improve the overall health and capacity of our genetic line.
As for my son, further research in epigenetics may soon decipher the specific mixture of genetics and environmental exposures that lead to Autism Spectrum Disorders. Along with other scientific discoveries, we are hopeful that such studies will develop treatment that will lessen the severity of the symptoms that make his life difficult. Until that time, we’ll continue to love and nurture our son, and thank the Creator for entrusting us with such a miraculous, artistically talented child, whose brave struggle to learn how to express emotions like anger and love inspires everyone around him.
Ruth Hopkins (Sisseton-Wahpeton/Mdewakanton/Hunkpapa) is a writer, a pro-bono tribal attorney, a science professor, and a columnist for the Indian Country Today Media Network. She can be reached at email@example.com