Abuse could mean higher risk of autistic children
March 20th, 2013
04:54 PM ET

Abuse could mean higher risk of autistic children

Being abused as a child may increase a mother's chance of having a child with autism, according to a new study, but researchers aren't sure why.

Investigators at The Harvard School of Public Health looked at more than 50,000 women in the Nurses' Health Study II group, and found that those who reported the highest levels of abuse as children themselves were 60% more likely to have children with some type of autism-spectrum disorder.

The reasons for the apparent connection, reported Wednesday in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, remain murky.

"We know that women who experience abuse in childhood are more likely to have (certain pregnancy-related) risk factors, like smoking during pregnancy, gestational diabetes or preeclampsia," said Andrea L. Roberts, a research associate at Harvard and lead author of the paper. "We also know that a lot of pregnancy complications and pregnancy-related risk factors have been associated with autism."

It would stand to reason, then, she says, that the increase in pregnancy complications that stem from a history of abuse would be the reason for an increase in children with autism. But that wasn't the case.

"When we put the two pieces together, we found that actually those pregnancy circumstances didn't explain the increased risk of autism in women who have been abused."

So what did?

"It's a hypothesis, and in our study, we don't have any evidence for this, but we know that women who have been abused are more likely to have signs of inflammation in their blood," says Roberts. "Women and men who have been abused also have a more exaggerated response to stress, and both of those things have been associated with autism."

Other autism experts say that while this correlation between abuse of the mother and autism in their children is intriguing, more studies need to be done to establish why this link exists.

"I think there definitely needs to be a further step," said Rebecca Schmidt, and autism researcher at UC Davis. "There need to be additional studies that really address some of the speculative parts of this study - specifically, why this link would be there."

The study's author doesn't disagree.

"The next step is trying to figure out why it is that women who have experienced abuse are significantly more likely to have a kid with autism," Roberts said. "We looked at nine pregnancy-related factors. It's possible it's something else we didn't measure, like infection."

While these findings may sound alarming, women who were abused as children shouldn't be alarmed, Roberts said.

"Among the women who experienced the most severe abuse, the rate (of having a child with autism) was only 1 in 50, so the risk is still quite low," she said.

If you're still concerned, Roberts says yoga, exercise, meditation and talking with a counselor can help reduce an increased stress response.

soundoff (27 Responses)
  1. AutieMommie

    People who were abused as children are more likely than others to have parents who smoked, abused drugs or alcohol, or who were medicated for mental health issues. If the grandmother smoked or took drugs or meds when pregnant with a daughter, that daughter's eggs could be compromised in some way, probably via epigenetic mechanisms. That daughter's children (resulting from the eggs) could therefore be more likely to suffer development impairments as a consequence.

    March 20, 2013 at 22:49 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Anna

      I was abused by a neighbor as a child, and both of my parents were as vanilla, law abiding, generally "good" as you can get. My child does not have autism. Your stats, where did you get them from?

      March 23, 2013 at 20:48 | Report abuse |
    • Erica Milam

      has anyone considered the idea that WOMEN who are autistic and who have autistic traits THEMSELVES are more likely to be "severely abused" due to vulnerability? and then, due to heritability, these women had children with autism (who were identified because they were born in an era of increased awareness)? i can't believe no one has considered that as a plausible factor. these women probably weren't diagnosed because, again, it was another era - and nobody really looks for traits in women, particularly if they function well (it doesn't seem like researchers even thought about it themselves at all). which is sad, bordering on pathetic (sigh). i hope someone explores the issue

      June 22, 2013 at 12:49 | Report abuse |
  2. stschofield

    Suddenly I know how the Bethlehem mothers of the 50s and 60s felt. I have two autistic children because I beat my wife? What an absurd assertion. I know hundreds of families who have autistic children and not one has a history of abuse. It's amazing that that same squalid research done in the 50s to blame mothers is now being repeated to blame fathers.

    March 21, 2013 at 00:25 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Go re-read the article


      March 21, 2013 at 12:45 | Report abuse |
    • pat in jersey

      How do you know the inner lives of those "`100's" of families?? The truth is often not told.

      March 21, 2013 at 15:37 | Report abuse |
    • DId you read the article

      The article is talking about a history of abuse of the mother as a child...not as an adult. So it is not about blaming fathers.

      March 22, 2013 at 10:10 | Report abuse |
  3. helenecha

    No doubt, whether or not the children are healthy that depends on their parents, so to speak. But come on! Autistic kids don't look like that they have the enough time to hoard some psychological problems since they're capable of having the detailed memories during at age 3. So, Autistic kids need more psychiatry care than others. Besides, how much chance an abused mother would take to become the mental disorder so that her baby would be inherited, which is beyond us.

    My point is that it's unreliable that abuse could mean higher risk of autistic children.

    And by the way, let autistic children read more loudly, sing more showily and play more surprisingly may help them from accepting psychiatry.

    March 21, 2013 at 01:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. alta

    I have notice over the years of being around a large group of people with children that I could predict which child would have problems later at almost 100% by the parents behavior . One thing is a parent screaming at the child over and over, just keeping it up and the child standing there playing with his fingers at 2, 3 or 4 years old. I think they turn their minds off because they are intimidated by this and it affects them at age 6,7,8 and on. When they show this behavior at school the school is very quick to call the parent in and say ADD or other problem as every child that is diagnosed with these conditions, then the schools gets money, given by a bill passed a few years ago.

    March 21, 2013 at 02:02 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Lyra Moon

      Parent's tend to yell/disengage/etc with these kids BECAUSE of the child's disengaged behavior and their unconventional way of responding to conventional parenting techniques. It isn't the yelling parent that 'causes' ADHD or autism, it is the child's behavior that frustrates parents and results in poor parenting skills.

      The study here may very well reflect the fact that autism is genetic and the mother or her parent's had issues with behavior, emotional regulation, etc.

      March 22, 2013 at 13:22 | Report abuse |
  5. pat in jersey

    I think they have something here. So many children being brought up in abusive homes. Or just terribly dysfunctional homes is the norm.

    March 21, 2013 at 15:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Jake

    Autism or fetal drug/alcohol exposure? Unless the child is adopted, few doctors will even bring up the possiblity a child's problems were caused by maternal substance abuse. A lot of the symptoms of FASD overlap with autism but unless the kid has the very clear facial feature of FAS caused by heavy drinking early in pregnancy, few doctors will say it's FASD. It could be one of the reasons the diagnosis for autism and ADHD have gone up so dramatically that people don't want to talk about. OBs will tell pregnant women not to worry when they drank or did drugs before they knew they were pregnant. Wonder how many of these kids are eventually diagnosed with autism, etc rather than FASD. Abused women may abuse substances to cope and end up brain damaging their unborn kids in the process.

    March 22, 2013 at 07:10 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Re-read the article

      It eliminates this factor as the cause.

      March 22, 2013 at 15:31 | Report abuse |
    • jake

      The study presumes the diagnosis of autism is correct. The fact is that FASD is under diagnosed and autism and ADHD are over diagnosed. Hmm... wonder if there's a connection. How many of these autistic kids really have one of the FASD disorders?

      Personally, my step-nephew is a FASD kid, his mother drank, did meth and God knows what else while pregnant. He now lives with his grandparents- and guess what- he's diagnosed with autism. He goes to a special class for autistic kids, he has his special education plan for autism. His maternal grandmothers will not admit to doctors their daughter abused any substances while pregnant. Few women will admit to it and doctors often argue that FASD diagnosises do more harm than good because there is no cure and mother get stigmatized and blamed.

      March 22, 2013 at 19:20 | Report abuse |
  7. Daniel Krell, M.D.

    Some family members of a child identified as on the autism spectrum exhibit varying degrees of autism spectrum symptoms. The identified child, the "index patient," presents a more advanced form of the condition that is found in other family members, the other family members having symptoms of lesser severity. This is not always the case, but it is recognized in the medical literature. This means that there is a higher frequency of some autistic spectrum functioning among the parents of children identified as being on the autistic spectrum. One must consider that the parental "abuse" is a reflection of dysfunction related to one or both parents' unrecognized autism spectrum status, not the cause of the child's condition. ASSOCIATION IS NOT CAUSATION.

    March 22, 2013 at 08:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Principaldad

    The "inflammation" hypothesis sounds like pseudoscientific speculation. It is more than a stretch to argue without any evidence at all that some "inflammation" could persist from the time woman was an abused child to the time she is an adult having children of her own. To suggest that such a conjecture would then affect the prevalence of autism is even more of a stretch, since the links the authors are talking about are far from established. There is no compelling reason to assume that such a correlation has a direct causation affect.

    There are countless possible reasons for such a correlation. Aside autism has a demonstrated genetic factor, and there is an apparent tendency for those with some traits of high functioning autism to have children on the spectrum. It is also quite true that many people mistake signs of autism for misbehavior. The correlation could easily be that the mother herself could have had some signs of high level autism, and was abused as a result. In fact, I suspect that one would see the same correlation of childhood abuse if one were to look at fathers.

    There are countless other possible reasons for such a correlation as well. Some sort of left over "Inflammation" is not a likely one.

    March 22, 2013 at 10:30 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Katelyn

      Principaldad, unfortunately you are not up to date on the research. There is ample proof that exposure to abuse as a child increases inflammation and also increases the incidence of inflammatory disorders throughout the life of that child, including when they reach adulthood and beyond. Google is your friend, if you are interested in the research.

      March 22, 2013 at 15:36 | Report abuse |
  9. Odalice Feliz

    "We know that women who experience abuse in childhood are more likely to have (certain pregnancy-related) risk factors, like smoking during pregnancy, gestational diabetes or preeclampsia," said Andrea L. Roberts, a research associate at Harvard and lead author of the paper. "We also know that a lot of pregnancy complications and pregnancy-related risk factors have been associated with autism."

    March 31, 2013 at 02:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. another Jennifer

    Glad I had regular acupuncture while pregnant to help control my stress.

    Regarding the study, not sure on the correlation vs causation discrepancy. ASD rates are higher among military families. I don't think anyone is suggesting if you join the military, your offspring will be autistic.

    April 1, 2013 at 01:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Mary

    I was severely abused as a child and I do have an Autistic firstborn son. But my siblings were also abused and none out of the 6 others have children with Autism.

    April 2, 2013 at 10:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Jo

    What about women that have been exposed to domestic violence from a young age ie early 20s that has gone on to have an autistic child?

    June 23, 2013 at 03:41 | Report abuse | Reply
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