Holford on Autism

November 7, 2008 at 9:09 pm (Bad Science)

In Optimum Nutrition for the Mind, Patrick Holford discusses “Answers for Autism” (pp 238-249). Holford Watch have already looked at Patrick’s views on autism in a number of posts – categorised here – but, having read Holford’s book I feel as though I should make some use of the time I spent.

Holford begins by claiming that the incidence of autism more than tripled between 1987 and 1999 [Ref: US Dept. Developmental Services], then states that there has been a dramatic increase in late-onset autism over the past ten years and that, according to the National Autistic Society, the incidence may be higher than 1 in 100 children. Holford follows this information on the incidence of autism with an assertion that: “This strongly suggests that something new is triggering this epidemic. Possible culprits include diet, vaccinations and gut problems, which are also very much on the increase in children.” [No references are given to support these assertions.] An alternative explanation could be that changes in diagnosis have led to an increase in the recorded incidence of autism. Science Based Medicine discuss a paper by Dorothy Bishop on this topic here. Abstract. There was also a post on Left Brain/Right Brain, here, that reported on a presentation at a conference on evidence of autism in a psychiatrically hospitalized sample.

Note also the list of potential culprits for the supposed epidemic. Media nutritionists (and others) have variously referred to the possibilities that mercury could be a cause of autism (often citing the mercury in thiomersal, the preservative used in some vaccines) and that the MMR vaccine could be to blame (despite the fact that the MMR vaccine never contained thiomersal).

Holford himself later states that autistic children may have “an inability to rid the body of toxic metals such as copper, mercury, cadmium and so on. The [sic] could happen either because the child has a genetic defect […] or [be] due to early over-exposure to toxic metals, possibly coupled with zinc deficiency” and that “in any event, the child ends up overloaded with toxic metals which are well known to induce many of the symptoms of autism.” [The only supporting reference is to a study that found a “high blood copper/zinc ratio” in autistic children. Cited as “W Walsh et al., Metallothionein and Autism, Pfeiffer Treatment Centre, Napersville, Illinois (2001). See hriptc.org”. This looks like the abstract of the paper PH is citing.]

In the MMR section of this chapter of ONM, Holford states that no-one knows the full consequences of “giving a child three immune attacks – measles, mumps and rubella – all at the same time”, that the illnesses aren’t caught at the same time “in nature” and that (perhaps) for children with nutrient deficiencies and weak immune systems (and lacking fatty acids, and susceptible to food allergies, infections and/or gut problems) MMR is “the last straw”. That sounds like the theory of immune overload to me. There’s a paper on that here: Pubmed; and WHO has a webpage on immune overload here. [*]

Holford then goes on to raise the spectre of mercury in thiomersal. Why he does this in a section titled “The MMR Vaccine Debate” is beyond me – MMR has never contained thiomersal. More on MMR not containing mercury can be found on blogs such as the excellent Breath Spa for Kids. This post includes links to FDA and NHS sites that show statements relating to the absence of thiomersal in MMR (handily, the FDA link has a table you can check to see which vaccines do contain, did-but-no-longer contain, and never have contained thiomersal/thimerosal).

[*Holford’s reference to support his statements in the above paragraph is to “Andrew Wakefield speaking at the Allergy Research Foundation conference, 1999” and Holford had earlier cited a study that he claimed was “the first hint of a problem” (with a caveat, surprisingly, that it “may be too early to jump to conclusions”). This important study? Wakefield et al’s Lancet paper. Listed in this PDF that presents a rough overview of the evidence on MMR and autism: look out for the big ‘retracted’ stamp.]


  1. Neuroskeptic said,

    So it’s all pretty standard anti-vax stuff then. He couldn’t even come up with an original crackpot idea…

  2. LeeT said,

    I was thinking to myself recently that Patrick Holford is the total opposite of some one on the autistic spectrum. He is outgoing, charismatic, has great social skills and believes in the bigger picture rather than details. Unlike many people with Asperger’s Syndrome he could never be accused of being obsessed with one subject!

    Possibly he is so anti people with autism because he does not understand. He thinks everyone should be like. Thank goodness for neurodiversity!

  3. jdc325 said,

    What I found most interesting about my brief look at Holford’s Answers for Autism was that his assertions and conclusions either lacked references or were supported by poor quality refs: conference presentations; a retracted paper; an abstract seemingly only published on the website for the Pfeiffer Treatment Centre.

    He talks about early exposure to toxic heavy metals affecting autistic children’s ability to detoxify/excrete heavy metals and then cites a paper that is about the high copper/zinc ratio in autistic children. I can’t see how anyone can know from a paper on relative levels of copper and zinc that a child has an inability to detoxify/excrete heavy metals and I certainly can’t understand how one would be able to work out from the paper Holford referenced that this inability to detox heavy metals was caused by early exposure to one or more of these metals. The paper itself states that “these data suggest that an inborn error of MT functioning may be a fundamental cause of autism”, which to me seems to indicate a proposed genetic basis for the copper/zinc ratios seen in these children – there’s nothing to suggest early exposure to heavy metals could be a potential cause of the supposed MT disorder (in fact the authors only state that the Cu/Zn levels are suggestive of MT disorder). Not only does he cite a paper that has not (apparently) been published in a medical journal, but Holford’s statements don’t seem, at least to me, to be supported by the paper he cites. I just can’t see how an “inborn error” can be said to be “early over-exposure” – the two seem to me to be at odds. I’m happy to consider the possibility that I am wrong, though.

    Holford’s reference to immune overload is, apparently, supported by something Andrew Wakefield said at a conference. His conclusions are at odds with the WHO statement and with all the peer-reviewed, published papers I’ve seen (and I can only assume that if there were a better reference than a conference speech Holford would have used it).

    I wouldn’t describe Holford’s approach to scientific literature as “cherry-picking”, though – I’d probably go for something more along the lines of “straw-clutching”.

  4. LeeT said,

    Last year I was a volunteer on an Autism research project at a well known university. I asked the researcher whether he thought there was any truth in the theory that diet can radically change the behaviour of those with autism. The answer was “no”. The theory that leading researchers are running with it at the moment is brain structure. It will be interesting to read the paper when it is published in a couple of years time.

    As far as I know no serious scholar in the field has proposed heavy metals as a cause of autism.

  5. Targets: Aids, Cancer, Autism and Dyslexia « jdc325’s Weblog said,

    […] Autism has been claimed to be reversible. By homeopaths – and those who believe that chelation will ‘cure’ autism. Sometimes with tragic consequences. And sometimes the attempts at a cure are, in my opinion, offensive and ignorant rather than dangerous. Patrick Holford has a chapter on autism in his book Optimum Nutrition for the Mind [more here.] […]

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