There are many suggested culprits apparently linked to the development of autism spectrum disorder in children, but none of these supposed issues have enough clinical evidence to back the claims made by some. Lately, though, it has been suggested that stress experienced by the mother during her pregnancy could lead to the development of this behavioral disorder. So, can stress during pregnancy cause autism?
We know that maternal stress can be associated with the development of pregnancy-related problems such as the low birth weight of the baby and pre-term delivery of the fetus. A recent study though shows that stress during a pregnancy can increase the chances of having a baby with autism, but also take into consideration that there are indeed mothers who experience stress during their pregnancies and give birth to children who don’t develop disorders related to autism.
Researchers say that autism spectrum disorders are more likely caused by genetic factors, but there are certain environmental influences that cannot be ignored. In the study that was conducted, the researchers asked mothers with children diagnosed with autism whether they had experienced any significant stressors during their pregnancies, and their blood was then analyzed for the presence of a stress-sensitive gene that controls the hormone serotonin to assess their reaction to these stressors. The findings showed that the mothers with children diagnosed with autism did report significant amounts of stress at the end of the second and beginning of the third trimester of their pregnancies.
As mentioned, the fact that there are mothers who also experienced significant stressors without having children with autism needs to be considered when looking at the results of the study. Also, by significant stressors, we talk about losing a job, going through a divorce, or dealing with the death of a loved one. Another limitation of the study is that it was an observational one which warrants further research to confirm its findings.
We’ve spoken about the possibility of stress resulting in a child developing autism, but what about the medications used to manage stress-related conditions?
Exposure to significant stressors can result in affected individuals developing anxiety-related disorders which can complicate into major depression. When this occurs, these individuals may need to use medications such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which are antidepressants that help to stabilize serotonin levels in the brain thereby reducing anxiety and elevating one’s mood.
A recent study has suggested that the use of SSRIs in the third trimester of pregnancy increases the chance of having a baby with autism by up to 87 percent. With that being said, the risk to the mother in stopping such medications versus the benefit of doing so for the sake of the fetus not having an increased chance of developing a behavioral condition should be carefully considered.
It is therefore very important for pregnant women who are using antidepressants to consult with their doctors about the use of the medications since, as mentioned earlier, increased stress and depression themselves are also possible risk factors for the development of autism in the fetus.