What is Autism?

What is Autism?

Autism or Autism Spectrum Disorder is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by a broad range of symptoms. These symptoms include difficulties with social interaction, repetitive behaviors, expressing emotions, difficulty transitioning, gastrointestinal issues, sensory issues, immune system issues and more. There is increasing evidence that autism may be an autoimmune disease affecting the brain and nervous system [1].  More research is needed to confirm this, but abnormal immune system response in autism is common, and an identified part of the disorder. 

According to the CDC, one in 59 children have Autism [2]. This number has risen significantly in the past few decades. For example, one in 150 children born in 1992 were diagnosed with autism, and one in 88 children born in 2000 were diagnosed with the disorder. In Minnesota, our numbers are higher than the national average. Based on a 2014 study, one in 42 children are diagnosed with Autism [3]. The numbers today are presumably higher, rising alongside the national average. A study in California suggests up to a quarter of this can be attributed to changes of diagnosis [4, 5]. A small amount may be attributed to more awareness of the disorder and other factors, however increased toxicity environmental exposures appears to be a major factor in the increase.


Symptoms of Autism

Because Autism is a spectrum disorder, symptoms can vary in severity and type from person to person. These are just some of the common outward symptoms:

  • Difficulty with communication
  • Inappropriate use of gestures, eye contact, facial expressions, tone of voice
  • Difficulty recognizing, expressing and responding to emotions
  • Feeling uncomfortable in social situations
  • Extreme interest or non-interest in specific topics
  • Repetitive body movements (rocking, flapping hands or spinning)
  • Resistance to change
  • Inability to speak or delayed speech
  • Difficulty carrying on back and forth conversation
  • Specific food preferences or aversions
  • Sensory Processing differences
  • Immune system abnormalities
  • Gastrointestinal symptoms (constipation, loose stools, frequent stomach aches)
  • Lining up objects
  • Labile mood, increased tantrums or emotional outbursts

What Causes Autism?

There is no singular known cause of Autism. Researchers have determined that Autism is caused by a combination of environmental (more-so), and genetic (less-so) factors, or environmental factors that appear to trigger underlying genetic predisposition. Autism spectrum disorders are a myriad of symptoms caused by underlying medical and environmental and to a small extent, genetic causes.

Genetic Factors

Some genetic variants or combinations of genetic variants have been identified that can predispose Autism. Although having one genetic variant or mutation doesn’t typically lead to Autism. Many people with some of the genetic variants found in autism are never diagnosed with Autism [6].

Although Autism runs in families, it hasn’t been proven that genetics predispose children to Autism. [7] A recent study connected a familial history of neurological and mental health disorders to an increased risk of Autism, but not to specific singular genes [8]. Further research is needed on the combinations of different genetic variants in concert with specific environmental triggers.

Environmental Factors

Environmental risk factors play a large role in Autism. The prenatal period is a time when the embryo and fetus are very susceptible to environmental exposures that may contribute to an Autism Diagnosis [9,10]. Therefore, the more a couple does to avoid toxin, heavy metal, chemical, pesticide, herbicide and infectious exposures, as well as stress during this period, the better. Also, adding supplements like Vitamin D and Folate in the diet has been proven to reduce the risk of Autism in addition to other nutritional factors.

Genetic-Environmental Factors

Genetic-Environmental Factors

More research is needed on genetic-environment reactions and epigenetics, and how these play a role in developing the condition. Because there is no one environmental factor that has been identified, and no singular specific gene mutations that have been linked to the majority of autism diagnoses, further research is being done on the interactions between the two. It appears that different combined genetic and environmental factors result in an autism diagnosis [11, 12]. It has been said that genetics loads the gun, but environment is what pulls the trigger to cause autism in the majority of children.


Autism Diagnosis

Autism Diagnosis

In order for a child to be diagnosed with Autism, one must rule out a few other disorders: Rett’s Disorder, Fragile X Syndrome, and Childhood Disintegrative Disorder. Once those disorders are ruled out, a child must demonstrate two social impairments, at least one language-based impairment, and at least two repetitive behavior patterns in order to meet DSM-V diagnostic criteria. A total of six impairments must be recognized for a diagnosis [13]. In recent years, diagnosis has moved to a spectrum including specifiers that identify the presence or non-presence of characteristics. For example, someone diagnosed with Aspberger’s ten years ago would now be diagnosed with Autism without language or intellectual impairment. Other characteristics include: association with another medical condition, association with an environmental factor, and more. These specifiers allow practitioners to try to identify subsets within Autism Spectrum Disorder, and the goal is to treat autistic individuals with a one-on-one approach, targeting where they are on the spectrum, and their underlying medical and social-emotional issues, rather than treating each Autistic person the same.

Treatment Options for Autism

Treatment Options for Autism

Healthy, Nutrient-Dense Diet

Healthy, Nutrient-Dense Diet

The communication lines between the gut and the brain (gut-brain axis) have been more extensively studied in the last few years which has provided significant insight into neuropsychiatric conditions. Every condition that has an immune component has been correlated to some dysfunction of the gut. Today, you may see the gut referred to as the “second brain” in the literature, as your gut is home to about 80% of your immune system function.
This complex system, made up of trillions of bacteria and other microbes, is collectively called the microbiome. The microbiome also has been shown to be a key player in turning on and off genetic expression and is also involved in neurotransmitter production. With its implications in immune health and genetic expression, it’s easy to see why the gut is at the center of some autism research.
Optimizing the diet by incorporating nutrient dense, organic whole foods and limiting inflammatory and processed foods is a cornerstone to gut healing and whole-body healing. In a 12-month comprehensive nutritional and dietary intervention for Autism that included a gluten-free, casein-free, soy-free diet, an increase in essential vitamins, and an addition of fatty acids, showed a significant decrease in autism symptoms in those that participated in the study [14]. Working with an integrative and functional dietician / nutritionist is the best way to get an individualized nutrition plan, unique to you or your child’s nutrient needs and gastrointestinal symptoms. We work with you and your family to help implement an anti-inflammatory, gut-healing eating plan that will, in turn, support both gut and brain healing. A core aspect of treating autism spectrum disorders also includes replacing individualized vitamin and mineral deficiencies.


  • Optimal Nutrient co-factors and Methylation
  • Dietary detoxification support/ naturally detoxifying foods 
  • Exercise and movement
  • Sweating
  • Optimal hydration 
  • Other targeted strategies determined by your practitioner

Functional Medicine

Treating pathogens in the gut, such as candida, clostridia, bacterial, viral, parasitic, spirochete or other pathogenic overgrowths, can be done through a variety of botanicals and/or antibiotics when necessary. By treating underlying microbiome imbalances in the gut, it allows for the restoration of optimal gut function, allowing for improved nutrient absorption, neurotransmitter production, decreased inflammation, improved immune function, vagal nerve tone, and more.


Research has shown that maternal health through the preconception period and throughout pregnancy may influence the health outcomes of their children, including the risk for ASD (15, 16, 17, 18). At Newbridge, we support people at each stage of life and have providers who are passionate and committed to women’s health, preconception, and pregnancy care, as well as helping prevent autism and other neurodevelopmental and physical conditions in babies and children. We also take a comprehensive approach for maternal and paternal health in an effort to optimize reproductive health and pregnancy outcomes. This typically includes addressing nutritional deficiencies, hormonal imbalances, gut dysbiosis, and toxins.

Complementary Integrative Treatments


Autism Functional Medicine Providers

Stephanie Belseth, APRN, CPNP
Stephanie Belseth, APRN, CPNP

Stephanie is a board-certified Pediatric Nurse Practitioner with over 25 years of experience. She’s has completed advanced level clinician trainings sponsored by the Autism Research Institute, is a MAPS provider and a candidate for fellowship through the Medical Academy of Pediatric Special Needs (MAPS). Watch Stephanie’s presentation at the National Autism One Conference.

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Karn Johansen
Karn Johansen, PA-C

Karn is a Physician Assistant with over 25 years of experience. She completed yearly Advanced Level I & II Clinical CME trainings until switching to MAPS (Medical Academy of Pediatric and Special Needs) Clinician CME trainings in 2012, which she attends yearly to stay up to date with current research and clinical practice recommendations.            

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