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Childhood Abuse Boosts Women’s Risk of Having Autistic Children

Update Date: Mar 20, 2013 06:36 PM EDT
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Physical, emotional or sexual abuse in childhood significantly increases a woman's risk of giving birth to autistic children, according to new research.

A new study by researchers at Harvard School of Public Health revealed that women who experienced abuse as children were more likely to have a child with autism than women who were not abused.  Furthermore, the severity of abuse a woman experienced in childhood strongly correlated with her chances of having an autistic child, according to researchers.  The study found that women who suffered the most severe abuse had more than triple the risk of giving birth to a child with autism compared to women who were not abused.

The latest study published online March 20 in JAMA Psychiatry reveals a "completely new" risk factor for autism, according to lead researcher Andrea Roberts, research associate in the HSPH Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences.

"Child abuse has a horrible effect on individuals who experience it, but the effects might reach across generations," Roberts told HealthDay. "The more abuse a woman had been exposed to in her own childhood, the more likely she was to have a child with autism."

The study analyzed data from more than 50,000 women in the Nurses Health Study II. 

The large-scale study revealed that even women who experienced moderate levels of abuse were 60 percent more likely to have a child with autism compared with women who did not experience abuse.  The latest findings suggest that childhood abuse doesn't just affect those who directly experience it, but may also increase the risk for serious disabilities in future generations.

The study accounted for other pregnancy-related risk factors for autism such as gestational diabetes, preeclampsia, and smoking.  Researchers found that while women who were abused as children had a higher risk for each of the nine pregnancy-related risk factors examined in the study, those risk factors only accounted for 7 percent of the increased likelihood of having a child with autism among women who were abused.

Researchers explained that because these factors accounted for so little of the association between mother's experience of abuse and risk of autism in her children, other factors related to abuse might be playing a role. Roberts and her team said that one possibility is that the long-lasting effects of abuse on women's biological systems, such as the immune system and stress-response system, could increase their likelihood of giving birth to an autistic child. However, researchers noted that more research is needed to identify the mechanisms involved in the maternal childhood abuse-autism link.

"Childhood abuse is associated with a wide array of health problems in the person who experiences it, including both mental health outcomes like depression and anxiety, and physical health outcomes like obesity and lung disease," senior author Marc Weisskopf, associate professor of environmental and occupational epidemiology at HSPH, said in a statement. "Our research suggests that the effects of childhood abuse may also reach across generations."

The latest discovery certainly is worrying, but researchers stressed that while the increased risk seems high, the absolute risk of autism associated with maternal childhood abuse is actually very low.

Roberts explained that fewer than one in 100 children of mothers who did not experience childhood abuse had autism compared to two in 100 children of mothers who experienced the highest level of abuse.

"So, most of their kids don't have autism," she said, according to HealthDay.

Nonetheless, in light of the latest findings, researchers recommend increasing efforts to prevent childhood abuse and suggest that healthcare professionals focus more on limiting pregnancy-related autism risk factors, especially among at-risk populations like women who suffered abuse as children.

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