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Stress In Pregnancy Linked To Autism-Like Traits


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A new study is linking stress during pregnancy to an increased risk of autism-like traits in children. (Shutterstock)

A new study is linking stress during pregnancy to an increased risk of autism-like traits in children. (Shutterstock)

Mothers who experience greater stress during pregnancy appear to be at increased risk of having children with autism-like traits, a new study suggests.

Researchers found a connection between the hardship mothers experienced during pregnancy and the likelihood that their child would have difficulty making friends or exhibit odd speech patterns, clumsiness and other autism-like characteristics.

The findings come from a long-term look at 150 families affected by severe ice storms in Quebec, Canada in January 1998. All of the mothers in the study were pregnant during the ice storm or became pregnant shortly thereafter.

Specifically, researchers found that at age 6½, autism-like traits were most prominent in children whose mothers experienced the greatest hardship during the ice storm — going more days without electricity, for example.

What’s more, the findings reported this month in the journal Psychiatry Research suggest that the effect of a mother’s stress was most pronounced during the first trimester of pregnancy.

“We have found effects of the mothers’ objective hardship from the ice storm (such as the number of days without electricity), or their degree of distress from the storm, on every aspect of child development that we have studied,” said Suzanne King of McGill University, the study’s senior author, who emphasized that the children researched did not have autism, but only varying levels of traits commonly seen in the developmental disorder.

“Our research is showing us how vulnerable the unborn child is to his mother’s environment and her mood,” King said.

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Comments (10 Responses)

  1. Janice says:

    Interesting article

  2. Pam Smith says:

    Great one more thing for pregnant women to stress over and one more thing for mothers of autistic children to feel guilty about. Although after working in child care for thirty years it has been demonstrated over and over that the parents stress levels do affect their children. I know first hand that the more stressed the parent the more stressed the child, but also the overstressed parents often feel they have so much to do that they don’t take time for one of the most important thing that aids in development, parent-child PLAY TIME!

  3. Veronica says:

    Are more mothers experiencing more stress than in the past accounting for the rise in the number of children diagnosed with autism (other than “better recognition” and wider criteria)?

    What can be done to relieve the stress? Some stressful events you have no control over. In many ways you can choose how to cope but initially there is a “flight or flight” response (rise in stress hormones) that is more involuntary.

    What are the other environmental factors, such as toxins, besides stress, that affect your genetics (change DNA methylation aka epigenetics)? Stress may not be the sole factor resulting in autism.
    You would think that the poor are more prone and susceptible to stress than the wealthy. The well-to-do are more likely to get their child diagnosed earlier.

    Another recent study says that mothers of children with autism were more likely to have increased testosterone – it could be due to the presence of hormone disruptors such as in plastics.

    Who else has heard of research (or theory?) about men carrying cell phones in their pockets linked with autism? – that the energy waves from the cell phones affect the sperm – the more fragile Y chromosome – thus more boys are affected than girls – and that the rise in autism since the 90’s corresponds with this?

    Also, has any research been done about mothers who took the acne medication Accutane in the past – it is contraindicated in pregnancy as it can cause serious, even fatal birth defects in children. Is there any research about Accutane’s affects on the quality of women’s eggs? Accutane was originally developed as a chemotherapy drug for a rare form of brain cancer. So who knows what the long term effects of this or many other drugs could be!

    The CDC says vaccines do not cause autism according to research yet the CDC stated in the Congressional autism hearing that they never conducted a study comparing autism rates in the vaccinated vs. un-vaccinated population. The National Vaccine Injury program will compensate for vaccine-induced encephalopathy (brain damage) but not for autism. Who is to say that severe autism is not an encephalopathy?

    What percent of severe autism is on the rise compared to moderate or mild cases?

    Also, what research has been conducted on the short and long term effects of genetically modified foods.
    The environment and genetics are interactive.

    According to some research studies, children born to older parents are linked to a higher risk of autism, and the older age of the father was shown to be more a risk factor than the older age of the mother.

    What would account for identical twins born to older parents where one child has autism and the other one doesn’t?

    I’m sorry if I could not articulate well here – it is late and I’m under stress! ….

    which reminds me, has sleep apnea in mothers been linked to children with autism?

    another thing I just remembered: The American Academy of Pediatrics recently stated that many pregnant and breast-feeding women are deficient in iodine and should take a daily supplement containing iodine.

    “Iodine, generally obtained from iodized salt, produces thyroid hormone, an essential component for normal brain development in the developing baby.

    But as consumption of processed foods has increased, so has iodine deficiency because the salt in processed foods is not iodized” according to their policy statement.

    Dietary supplements are not regulated over the FDA so you could be getting too little or too much of the supposed active and/or inactive (filler) ingredients.

    Correlation is not the same as causation and just like many other diseases, it could be difficult to determine if one case there is a predominant cause while in someone else it could be multi-factorial.

    Just because you may have genetic risk for certain diseases, does not necessarily mean you will be affected, as lifestyle factors can play a big role. Again, epigenetics!

  4. Margaret says:

    This would mean that there would be a tremendous increase in autism if a pregnant woman is caught in a war. Somehow there doesn’t seem to have been an explosion of autistic children in Germany or Japan during WWII from bombing raids on civilian populations. Perhaps ice storms are considered more serious by these researchers. Whether or not stress turns out to be a factor in autism, which is doubtful since stress is unavoidable for most people and that’s been true for most of human existence, I am sure that the children of Syria will suffer all kinds of problems from exposure to toxins in that ongoing civil war.

  5. CSK says:

    Now it’s the mood I was in, or the pressure I was under? Honestly, pregnant women have been in pressure-filled and perilous circumstances throughout history. Is it optimal for the unborn child? Definitely not. Does it cause autistic-like behavior in the child once he/she is born? I find that to be really grasping for straws, as I find much of what is considered autism-related research.

  6. Richard Faiola, MD says:

    Just what we need, more junk, low cost number crunching from established data purporting to elucidate a question the acquisition of said data was never designed to answer masquerading as serious science. And in this case, just one more weak correlation (NOT causation) suggestion to add to an already confusing highly emotional subject while heaping yet more guilt and anxiety on women and mothers. Pregnant women have been surviving REAL stress, months of famine, war, incarceration, poverty without a noted increase in autism (or symptoms that sort of remind us of it) for thousands of years. And now we are told that an ice storm and few days without power is enough to send Canadian women into such physiologic turmoil that it effects their progeny for life? Really? Really? Canadian women are tougher than that. IF there is even a legitimate correlation, it is probably far more likely driven by a socio-economic one between those who tend to loose power in an ice storm and those who prepare poorly, or live in neighborhoods not as well attended to by utilities (i.e. the well off are better served), etc. There is far more likely to be a difference in the home environment between the shy and the outgoing that might well be predicted by “do they loose power in ice-storms.” Other non physiologic markers likely to produce same result might be family income, crime rate in neighborhood, unemployment of fathers, education level of mother, etc, etc.

  7. Alice P. says:

    Agree with Pam, Veronica, and Dr. Faiola. One would think from this research that every child born autistic must be from a mother who is being abused by her husband. What greater stress than that is likely in the first trimester? (Luckily most of us are not in war zones, Margaret – unless that war zone is being caused by an abuser in our own homes). Could it be the authors are trying to deflect the research that indicates an association between older fathers and autistic or disabled children?

  8. autism mom says:

    I bet autism parents feel no more stress than those with typical children at least in the US. why not go back and look to see if autism rates in war torn countries compared their rates to the US- are the rates higher or lower? these studies are distracting from real causes which are likely postnatal toxic environmental exposures

  9. Missy Breckenridge says:

    This article is absolutely ridiculous. Show or, at least, footnote, the evidence/research. Poorly done. Quite honestly irresponsible to publish this article. Families who deal with autism need evidence based medicine, research, and information.

  10. Sarah says:

    It doesn’t make sense for people to say “go back and look at the statistics on autism from this period of time”. Years ago, many, many autistic children were misdiagnosed or not diagnosed at all. There was a much greater stigma associated with developmental disabilities. Today, we know much more about autism and have more highly effective tools for diagnosing it, which is just one of the reasons the diagnosis rate has been increasing. So any statistics you find on the matter from the past will likely not be accurate.

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