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Autistic child improves on antibiotics, raises question of autism-gut bacteria connection

Like most parents to children with autism, John Rodakis was intimately aware of its symptoms – lack of energy, delayed speech, strict adherence to routine, and much more. When John’s son went to the doctor with symptoms of strep throat, he was placed on an antibiotic treatment, as is common. Then, a funny thing happened: His son’s autism symptoms began to decrease, dramatically. Now, John’s account of the phenomenon has the medical community wondering once again if there may be a connection between autism and intestinal bacteria.

In speaking with other parents, he found that this was not an isolated incident. Combing through medical research, he came across a 1999 paper by Ellen Bolte exploring the link between austism and gut bacteria. In her research, she found that autistic children had less gut bacteria than children without autism, but her sample size was small. Furthermore, in 1999 the idea that gut bacteria could somehow influence a mental disorder seemed like borderline science fiction.

Rodakis began to keep copious notes on his son’s improvements, using a customized software that tracked 20 parameters of autism, along with room for him to note qualitative changes. His son’s therapists, unaware of the antibiotic treatments, also remarked on his improvement.

Rodakis continued to seek out further medical research, leading to disappointment in the lack of follow-on studies to the 1999 research. Eventually, his search led him to Dr. Richard Frye, the head of the Autism Research Program at Arkansas Children’s Hospital Research Institute, who found Rodakis’ detailed note taking invaluable.

“Careful parental observations can be crucial,” said Dr. Frye. “In science we take these observations, put them through the scientific method, and see what we find. This is what can lead to ground-breaking scientific discoveries and breakthroughs in the field.” Together, they gathered researchers from around the world for the “First International Symposium on the Microbiome in Health and Disease with a Special Focus on Autism,” held last June.

The breakthrough in discovering the possible microbial link to autism is monumental, of course, but it’s far from the only piece of the puzzle. It would be unwise, for instance, to keep children on sustained antibiotic regimens, both because of its effect on their microbiome balance and its potential contribution to bacterial resistance. That’s why, as science learns more about what autism is, it becomes clear that a whole host of fields, from immunology to neurology to microbiology, must be involved in the research efforts.

“At the time of his diagnosis, we had been led to believe that our son’s autism was a hard-wired neurological condition from which he would not emerge, but during the fall and winter of 2012 and subsequent periods since then we have seen our son with the veil of autism partially lifted. I love him unconditionally regardless of his autism or how he is doing on any given day, but because I have seen what is possible, I will endeavor to promote research that benefits all children with autism and to remove all impediments from him becoming the fullest embodiment of who he can be and until it is definitively proven otherwise, I will strive to foster research consistent with the evidence of the microbiome’s involvement in autism,” Rodakis wrote.