Complications During Pregnancy May Increase Autism Risk in Children: Study

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In a large retrospective study involving more than half a million births, researchers found a striking link between complications during and before delivery and later incidence of autism.

The study specifically looked at pregnancy complications, including birth asphyxia and pre-eclampsia, that can occur during the perinatal period, which starts a little more than halfway through a normal pregnancy and lasts through the birthing process itself.

A pregnant woman in Vietnam is examined. Credit: PACAF/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Researchers found that children exposed to complications before birth had a 22 percent increased risk of later developing autism spectrum disorder (ASD); those who endured complications during birth had a 10 percent increased risk of developing the common neurological disorder.

Children who experienced complications both before and during pregnancy had an even higher risk of autism – a 44 percent greater chance of developing the condition than children who didn’t experience any complications.

The study, led by researchers at Kaiser Permanente in California, assessed 594,638 pregnancies and subsequent births that took place between 1991 and 2009. Overall, the researchers identified 6,255 cases of autism and reviewed the previous medical history of the families to identify challenges during pregnancy.

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“Our study suggests that children exposed to certain perinatal complications, especially birth asphyxia and preeclampsia, were more likely to be diagnosed with ASD than those who were not exposed, even after adjusting for factors such as gestational age at birth and a mother’s age, race and education,” said lead author Dr. Darios Getahun.

A Range of Pregnancy Complications

The researchers found a number of pregnancy-related complications that were associated with an elevated risk of developing autism after birth. Other complications associated with autism include “premature separation of the placenta from the uterus, breech/transverse fetal presentation, fetal dystocia/abnormal size or position, and a prolapsed/exposed umbilical cord,” according to Kaiser Permanente.

One symptom of pre-eclampsia is high blood pressure. Credit: NIH/Wikimedia Commons

But they found that pre-eclampsia, a progressive condition characterized by high blood pressure that affects up to 8 percent of pregnancies, and birth asphyxia, which occurs when a baby doesn’t receive enough oxygen during pregnancy or the birthing process, had the highest rates of association.

Overall, the incidence of any perinatal complications was tied to a 15 percent increased risk of the child later developing autism.

A neurological and developmental disorder that impacts a person’s language ability, social skills, functioning and other areas, autism spectrum disorder affects about one in every 68 births, according to the Autism Society.

The researchers believe their findings may help improve the lives of children with autism.

“Pregnancy complications may help identify children who could benefit from early screening and intervention for this common neurodevelopmental condition,” write the researchers in the American Journal of Perinatology.

Appropriate education is considered critical to achieving greater social skills and functioning within society, as some first-hand accounts detail. The new study gives the medical community another way to identify the condition early. Other new research, including an app that can identify autism, has recently been introduced as well.

“While there currently is no cure for ASD, early identification of children who may be at risk of developing the disorder is extremely important, as research shows that early intervention treatment services for children with ASD can greatly improve their development,” said Getahun.

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Richard Scott
Richard Scott is a health care reporter focusing on health policy and public health. Richard keeps tabs on national health trends from his Philadelphia location and is an active member of the Association of Health Care Journalists.