Abused Women More Likely to Have Children with Autism, Study Finds

Posted on July 8th, 2013
Posted in Women

Autism is a very serious developmental disorder that usually appears in early childhood. Most kids who have the disorder show symptoms of autism before they are 3 years old. There are many symptoms and different levels of severity, but all children with autism struggle to connect and communicate with other people.

Early interventions and treatments help, but understanding how autism occurs and why it happens in some children and not others is crucial in preventing more kids from suffering from this disorder. New research shows that autism may be linked to abuse that the mother experienced when she was a child. With more pieces of the autism puzzle falling into place, hope continues to rise that this disorder can be eliminated.

What is Autism?

Autism is one of a full range of developmental disorders called autism spectrum disorders. They vary in terms of the types of symptoms, but mostly in their severity. Children can have mild symptoms that cause only minimal disruptions to their lives or very severe symptoms that prevent them from functioning normally.

The symptoms of autism can be classified by three main categories: social interaction, behavior and language. How these develop into specific symptoms depends on each individual. In general, autistic children have a hard time interacting with others. They may be unable to make eye contact. They do not listen well and they often do not like to be touched. They like to be alone and do not recognize social cues that other people display. In terms of behavior, autistic children may move a lot, make repeated motions, get distracted by things that most would ignore, and even perform actions that cause them harm. Language ability is sometimes disrupted or delayed in autistic children. They may have a hard time having a conversation or following directions.

No one knows for sure why some people develop in this way while others do not, but there are some risk factors. There seem to be genes that contribute to autism, as well as environmental factors, and other medical conditions. Autism is a lifelong condition with no cure, but there are treatments, mostly therapies, that help. Very young children especially benefit from therapy.

A Mother’s Childhood and Autism

New research has uncovered a mysterious link between a mother’s childhood experiences and the chances that her children will have an autism spectrum disorder. The study was published recently in the Journal of the American Medical Association Psychiatry. For the research, the authors looked at 50,000 women who were surveyed about their experiences with abuse before the age of 12. The questions in the survey asked about the type of abuse, how severe it was, whether it was physical or emotional, and other details. The women were then asked about their children and any autism diagnoses. To find a connection, the researchers adjusted for other risk factors for autism like environmental factors and family history.

The results of the study showed a link between abuse in a mother and children’s developmental disorders. The women who experienced emotional, physical, or sexual abuse at a young age were more likely to have kids with autism. The worse the abuse was, the greater the chance of autism, up to a 60 percent increased risk. What the result implies is that abuse has a lasting effect on a woman’s body. Exactly how it does that and why that is related to autism is not understood, but the researchers have a few ideas.

One is that women who are abused may also be exposed to other factors that harm the body, such as alcohol, drugs, cigarette smoke, and may have a poor diet. Another idea is that abuse leaves a woman in a continued state of stress and that the resulting hormones could be a factor in how a fetus develops. Certain hormones have previously been connected to autism.

That abuse has lasting effects on a woman’s health is not surprising. Women who are abused are at risk for mental health problems like depression and anxiety, but also physical problems like lung disease and obesity. This study makes the first link between abuse and the next generation and really underlines the destruction caused by abuse.

For experts who study autism, its causes, how to treat it and how to prevent it, this new information is just another piece of the puzzle. From here researchers can delve deeper into what this mysterious disorder is all about and how it arises in some children but not others. With more research like this, autism will one day be fully understood, and maybe even cured.

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