Developmental Issues: Did Swine Flu Cause Autism In My Son?

There's a lot of confusion out there about illness, the flu, vaccines, medications, and autism. This poor Mom is terrified that her son may have contracted Autism from a bout of Swine Flu. Here's her email to me: Dear Dr. Heather,

Please help. I saw your article on autism, and I am very intrigued and impressed by your knowledge and insight.

I don’t know what to do. I have two beautiful, 91/2 month old identical twin boys who were always very social, smiley, interactive, looking directly into the face, etc. The one I am most concerned about would turn his head and smile at his brother in their crib, smile at everybody, I would play the ‘up’ game with him and he would gaze into my eyes, smile, and giggle… and they both almost always responded by looking when I said their names.

Then one of them got sick with Swine Flu on August 6th. His brother got sick on August 8th. I will never forgive myself as the last time I remember him (the baby who got sick on the 8th) acting distinctly like himself was the 6th when I went to pick up his sick brother at daycare… he looked right up into my eyes, threw up his arms, smiled, and said ‘Mommmmm’…. And I barely paid attention to him, I rushed to his sick brother… I should’ve thrown my arms around him and hugged him and praised him…. I have such guilt and keep worrying/wondering what if that is the last time he ever does that?

They were both put on Tamiflu due to being high-risk (they have asthma symptoms). The baby I am most concerned about didn’t get as high a fever, but the virus infected his eye, and we think he also got a bacterial infection, so he got eye-drops and Amoxycillin as well. He was miserable and cranky for days. I know he can hear (by testing by loud noises, etc.) and he doesn’t have an ear infection, as he’s seen a doctor.

Now he is not himself. I first noticed this as he got better. He is not responding when I say his name, hardly ever. If he does he just looks for a second. He will make eye contact, but only for a second or two. He looks away when I try to play the ‘up’ game with him. He is still babbling, but not as much. He did this weird whisper-babbling this morning and smacked his lips. He is still playing with his toys, but is also playing with non-toy objects like straps and blinds.

The doctor has an ear test set up for him, but I have to wait two weeks just for a call to make the appointment.

Can a virus or antibiotics trigger autism? Does a flu ever attack the ears, eyes, or brain which might cause sudden symptoms? What are the other possibilities might be going on if he doesn’t have an ear infection? This is a very, very abrupt change.

What tests should I push for to find out what is wrong as soon as possible? What are the possibilities?

So far his brother is acting normally, but I am terrified as I'm worried about it affecting both twins eventually.

Please, I would love a response. We have (mega-large HMO) and it is hard to get tests/things done. I am eagerly awaiting your response and guidance.

Very, very sincerely, Concerned Mom

Obviously, this mom is in a state of desperation, so I responded immediately:

Dear Concerned Mom,

Of course I cannot evaluate your son myself and as such, I can only provide some educational information for you. But I did want to respond right away because you sound so very upset and worried.

First of all, please know that autism is thought most likely to be a genetically-related developmental issue, and I have seen no convincing information that it can be caused by a simple flu or other virus in a child, nor by antibiotics or antivirals. Additionally, the timeframe you mention of the abrupt changes in your son do not sound like the onset of autism. After all, it's been barely 2 weeks since the onset of his flu symptoms.

A (temporary) step backwards in response to illness However, it is VERY common to see temporary developmental regression in response to illness. This means that your child can take several steps BACKWARD developmentally -- in response to illness and/or stress -- and then "bounce back" days or weeks later. It's all part of the normal developmental process,which is full of starts, stops, and reversals -- the old "one step forward, two steps back" thing. Young children don't understand that the course of illness is temporary; that they will get better. They simply know they feel lousy. They are not up to showing off all their "best" developmental skills. They commonly regress to earlier stages of development, temporarily, until they feel better. And often times, symptoms of illness can linger for WEEKS in children -- especially for something as yucky as a flu. If he is showing regression in response to illness, the regression itself can linger for weeks as well, past the time that he gets better. This may vary from child to child and from illness to illness, so his brother may be fine (at least this time). Personalities vary in response to illness and stress I don't know about your husband, but when mine gets sick, he just wants everyone to GO AWAY. (is this a guy thing?) He's crabby and won't talk to me and is just a completely different personality than when he's feeling well. Everyone is different, and your boys also will have different responses to stress and illness. The point is that there are very reasonable possible explanations as to why your son is acting so differently than his usual self, for this relatively short timeframe.

It's important that you respond in a positive and supportive way, and not convey to him that you're so worried. He's able to pick up your anxieties, and internalize the message that "something must be wrong with him". He needs reassurance that he WILL get better, and WILL feel better, but for now he still feels lousy and needs to be babied -- and that's OK.

As I said, however, I cannot evaluate your child from afar, so it's important you get your doctors' advice, as it sounds like you are doing. But since you have to wait for appointments, I would take this time to hang out with your boys in a relaxed way, giving them the chance to fully recover.

Please let us know how you're all doing in a few weeks' time.

Aloha,

Dr. Heather The BabyShrink