Autism antibiotic story: How hope and misunderstanding mix

Liam Watkins with his brother Luke (WTNH / Jim Watkins)

(WTNH) The large community I call “Autism World” is undoubtedly feeling buoyed today by the latest news in the fight against the brain disorder.  And it IS exciting news.  A new study published by a Harvard MBA with a background in molecular biology finds that his own son, who’s on the autism spectrum, showed significant improvement after taking the antibiotic amoxicillin.

The boy was originally prescribed the drug to treat strep throat.  But then a funny thing happened; John Rodakis observed his son began making gains in things like eye contact and speech development, as well as overall drive and energy.  That got the dad looking into other research that had been done on antibiotics and autism, and he turned up previous studies that hinted at similar results.  He wrote up his own report, published this week in Microbial Ecology in Health and Disease.

The key is how the antibiotics might effect the bacteria in the gut.  There’s long been speculation that, as reported on the website Healthline, “..changing the balance of microbes in the gut can impact conditions ranging from obesity and food allergies to type 1 diabetes and autism.”

All good, right?  But go back and look at how I’m phrasing the descriptions: studies that “hinted…”; how antibiotics “might” effect the gut bacteria; changing the balance of microbes “can” have an impact.  As parents of a severely autistic boy, our 17-year-old Liam, we’ve learned to take all news of any breakthroughs with a sizable helpings of maybe, seems, and possibly.

Mr. Rodakis is doing the same.  Over and over as he explains his findings, he says this doesn’t mean antibiotics should be used to treat autism.  What he will say is that he “would like to see serious medical research into why some children seem to improve when taking antibiotics.”  (Did you catch that?  Seem to improve.)

After initial tries at magical cures when Liam was young and newly-diagnosed, my wife and I have settled into a science-based frame of mind as we move forward.  But even we will go with anecdotal “evidence” in certain cases.  Liam has always been on a gluten-free diet, because it seems like his behaviors and symptoms are better without wheat.  The amount of peer-reviewed scientific research proving that a gluten-free diet helps people on the autism spectrum?  Absolutely none.  We stick with it anyway.

But here’s what worries me about today’s news; while most of the stories about the antibiotic study you find on Google take the same cautiously hopeful view as its author, I found one — on the website Insight Ticker — with this headline: “Anitibiotics Drastically Improve Autism in Children.”  Think of the thousands of parents who will see that, and feel a surge of new hope that might not be justified.

I wish all autism parents and siblings nothing but the best. But also know that this is a very long distance race we’re running.  I’m glad today’s news goes into the “hopeful” column.

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