New Study Suggests Autism Begins in Pregnancy

pregnant womanParents of children on the autism spectrum often notice the condition slowly over time, as a child’s development unfolds and seems unusual. But a new study suggests that the path toward autism is set before a child is even born. Although the study was small, it helps to undermine arguments that autism is a product of parenting choices.

The Study

Researchers examined postmortem brains of children ranging from 2 to 15 years old.

During pregnancy, the brain builds six cortical layers. But the researchers found that 10 of 11 children with autism—and one of 11 children without—showed disruptions in the development of these cortical layers, suggesting that autism is the result of changes during pregnancy. The most pronounced brain disruptions in children with autism were in areas that affect language and social skills.

The researchers emphasized that children with autism showed abnormal brain development no matter how their symptoms manifested. They argue that this serves as evidence that children’s brains can adapt to abnormal development if they receive early intervention and treatment.

The study is one of the first to indicate a potential physical cause of autism. However, because the study was so small and looked at the brains only of children who had died, the results are preliminary and not conclusive.

Early Detection

The autism rate is now at an astonishing one in 68 children. April is Autism Awareness Month, and autism advocates across the country spend this month pushing for early detection and appropriate interventions. The latest study demonstrates that these efforts are valuable, since children with the same brain abnormalities can show significant variety in social and language skills. Sarah Swenson, a Seattle-based therapist and GoodTherapy.org Topic Expert, explains, “One of the most important results of early diagnosis is that parents can learn skills to become effective parents to their child, facilitating the child’s growth and development, and avoiding the stress of expectations that are not appropriate.”

Parents should know the early warning signs of autism. If you’re concerned about your child’s development, consult your pediatrician or a therapist who specializes in the issue.

Some warning signs of autism include:

  • Not making eye contact
  • Not babbling back and forth or sharing of facial expressions by nine months
  • Not babbling by 12 months
  • Not speaking any words by 16 months
  • A sudden drop-off in verbal or social skills
  • Not using gestures or pointing to share objects or get attention
  • Pronounced sensitivity to sensory stimuli such as light, sound, or certain textures
  • Unable to understand or follow directions by two years

Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida therapist Janeen Herskovitz, also a GoodTherapy.org Topic Expert, emphasizes that parents may need help not just for their children, but also for themselves.

“If you do get a diagnosis, or feel you are headed in that direction, get counseling for yourself and your family,” Herskovitz said. “While there is so much hope for progress and even recovery, autism is [an issue] that will profoundly change your family’s life and your marriage. Counseling, especially with someone who really understands the [condition], can make the journey easier. Second, find a physician who understands that autism has autoimmune foundations that can be, and need to be, treated in order to ensure the best possible outcome for your child.”

References:

  1. Disorganized cortical patches suggest prenatal origin of autism. (2014, March 26). Retrieved from http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2014-03/niom-dcp032514.php
  2. Early signs of autism spectrum disorder. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://raisingchildren.net.au/articles/autism_spectrum_disorder_early_signs.html/context/917
  3. Stoner, R., Chow, M. L., Boyle, M. P., Sunkin, S. M., Mouton, P. R., Roy, S., … Courchesne, E. (2014). Patches of disorganization in the neocortex of children with autism. New England Journal of Medicine, 370(13), 1209-1219. doi: 10.1056/NEJMoa1307491

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  • rhonda c

    rhonda c

    April 14th, 2014 at 4:41 AM

    My sincerest wish is that mothers and fathers are not now made to feel like they are to blame for their child having autism, like it was something that was done wrong all throughout pregnancy that caused this.
    I think that there are times when these families already have so much guilt to live with that adding something else could be too much for some of them to bear.
    I am all for the research to win this fight against autism as there are simply far too many kids living with this, but I wouldn’t want it to turn into a blame game either.

  • Zane

    Zane

    April 14th, 2014 at 3:39 PM

    This has to be hard for first time parents because some of these things that you note that could be signs of autism could also just be signs of a little bit of delayed development so it would be hard to know if this was normal or not if you don’t have anyone else to compare the developmental behavior to. I would always err on the side of caution and go to a pediatrician if I felt like something was a little off. This would be a person who can point you in the right direction and help you determine of there is anything you should be worried about.

  • alston

    alston

    April 15th, 2014 at 3:48 PM

    Please read this carefully-
    this study “suggests” that autism begins in pregnancy but there is no hard proof that this is actually the case. How about vaccines? How about other environmental and outside factors? Have those been looked at as closely as perhaps they should? I think that when we start suggesting then I think that there are those who are grasping at straws. who want there to be an answer where there may not be one yet.
    It is okay for researchers to keep looking as loong as we know that they are looking. But don’t say that we have the answer when this is far from certain.

  • CW

    CW

    April 16th, 2014 at 8:38 AM

    The study utilized all the available autistic brain tissue that met its research qualifications from two brain tissue banks (a National Institutes of Health and Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center); but it only found tissue samples from 11 children that met its quality needs. I remember that a lot of brains from deceased autistic persons preserved for research were destroyed by a freezer malfunction back in 2012 at Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center that destroyed 54 brains earmarked for autism research, out of the 150 brains damaged when the freezer was off for 3 days unnoticed. autism-central.com/loss-of-almost-150-brains-compromises-autism-research/1130, universityherald.com/articles/2146/20120611/harvard-brain-bank-damages-donated-brains.htm
    Here was an earlier research study of autistic brain tissue which began looking for some commonality in autistic brains, as each case is unique. sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/05/110525131701.htm

  • CW

    CW

    April 16th, 2014 at 8:50 AM

    Here is another article on the brain bank freezer failure that damaged 54 brains earmarked for autism research. It says the University of Maryland housed about 60 autistic brains for research, as well: everydayhealth.com/autism/0612/freezer-glitch-at-autism-brain-bank-sets-back-research.aspx Sushma Subramanian, 6/12/12, “Freezer Glitch at Autism Brain Bank Sets Back Research.”

  • Creighton

    Creighton

    April 17th, 2014 at 1:44 PM

    It almost feels like by the time many parents begin to sense that something is wrong that the child is too far down that road and there can be no turning back. I don’t wish to be so pessimistic but it seems that many times there is no knowledge that there is something wrong for quite a while.

  • Jack

    Jack

    April 18th, 2014 at 2:44 PM

    How come if it starts in pregnancy doesn’t it show up in the kids until they are older and not at birth?

  • Irma D.

    Irma D.

    April 18th, 2014 at 3:16 PM

    There are so many variables and having done research myself, I believe ASD is biological/genetic and environmental. Yet, one woman I know has fraternal triplets and only one child was diagnosed with Asperger’s. It presents questions for sure.

  • Isaac

    Isaac

    April 26th, 2014 at 12:51 PM

    Are there any viable ways for broadening the depth of the study, perhaps including more participants so that there can be something a little closer to conclusive evidence?

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