Study: Women Abused As Kids More Likely To Have Children With Autism

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Girl with bandaids over her lips

The results are the first to suggest a trans-generational contributor to the developmental disorder.

The study, published in the  journal JAMA Psychiatry, is the first to examine the potential legacy that a mother’s experience with childhood abuse could have on the health of her own children. The findings are especially sobering given the latest statistics released from the Centers for Disease Control, which found a significantly higher rate of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) — one in 50 compared to one in 88 from a report released in 2012 — among school-aged children than previously thought.

The authors of the JAMA Psychiatry paper studied more than 50,000 women enrolled in the Nurse’s Health Study II, who were asked about any history of abuse before they were 12. The questions delved into both physical and emotional abuse, as the women evaluated whether they had been hit hard enough to leave bruises, as well as whether adults or caregivers had insulted, screamed or yelled at them. They also filled out questionnaires about whether their own children were diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders. The scientists also had access to the nurses’ health records, so they could adjust for other maternal health factors known to influence autism risk, including nine pregnancy-related conditions such as preeclampsia, gestational diabetes, alcohol consumption and smoking.

(MORE: Autism: Why Some Children ‘Bloom’ and Overcome Their Disabilities)

Women who reported physical, emotional, or sexual abuse when they were young were more likely to have a child with autism compared to women who were not abused. The more severely the women were abused, the higher their chances of having a child with autism; compared to women who weren’t abused, those who endured the most serious mistreatment were 60% as likely to have an autistic child.

Because it’s possible that a mother’s exposure to abuse as a child could also lead her to engage in behaviors associated with harming the fetus — such as smoking, drinking during pregnancy, using drugs, being overweight, having preterm labor or giving birth to a premature or low birth weight baby — the scientists also calculated how much these factors contributed to the risk of ASD in the next generation. To their surprise, these conditions explained only 7% of the heightened risk among the abused women. That meant that abuse was exerting more lasting effects on the women’s bodies that were translating into an increased risk of autism in their children.

(MORE: Older Fathers Linked to Children’s Autism and Schizophrenia Risk)

How? The researchers believe that some of the lifestyle circumstances associated with abuse, such as poor nutrition, could be responsible for some of the association. It’s also possible that abuse causes biological changes in a woman’s immune system, including disruption of the stress response, that could lead to harmful effects on a developing fetus. Studies have shown that autistic children showed abnormal stress responses, and it’s possible that a mother’s altered stress reaction could be passed on to her child. “Maternal inflammation affects the developing brain, and maternal inflammation and immune function have been hypothesized to be causes of autism,” the researchers write.

The researchers also speculate that childhood abuse can leave women in a state of chronic stress; the constant release of stress-related hormones could also increase a developing child’s chances of developing autism, since such androgens have been associated with autistic symptoms. Finally, a mother’s childhood abuse could be an indicator of a genetic risk for mental illness, which is often associated with abuse of youngsters. Studies showed that mental illness and autism may share genetic risk factors, “therefore, the perpetration of child abuse by grandparents and experience of abuse in childhood by the mother may be indicators of genetic risk for autism in the child,” the study authors write.

(MORE: How Pets Can Help Autistic Children Learn to Share and Comfort Others)

“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 depression and anxiety, and physical health outcomes like obesity and lung disease,” said senior study author Marc Weisskopf, an associate professor of environmental and occupational epidemiology at Harvard School of Public Health, in a statement. “Our research suggests that the effects of childhood abuse may also reach across generations.”

Is that legacy enough to explain the apparent rise in ASD documented in the most recent government data? The CDC data was based on parental reports of autism; a representative sample of parents were asked whether a doctor had diagnosed their child with autism, and some experts caution that such reports are not as reliable as health records documenting the disorder. Still, the latest statistics suggest that at least awareness of ASDs is increasing, and with it, potential explanations for what might be contributing to the disorder.

If childhood abuse turns out to be one of these reasons for the rise in autism cases, then efforts to prevent it take on new urgency, since such interventions can benefit more than just one victim.

69 comments
AvrilPeck
AvrilPeck

Thanks but I already doubt and question myself daily, a hundred times over. Racked with guilt. Maybe I ate too much gluten? Didn't fart enough? Smoked that joint in '89... I don't need anyone to put the boot in, I'm doing a good enough job by myself thanks.

Do people know what these deeply flawed and open to strange interpretation news articles do to people? I have 4 boys, 3 eldest are fine, the youngest is autistic and needs one on one. I had the perfect childhood. I'm not a cold mother, alcoholic, drug addict, depressive (well- I wasn't before I read this) ,, so what did I do wrong?

MichelleSkigen
MichelleSkigen

While I certainly agree that abuse causes all sorts of problems, and very bad ones at that, to link it to causing autism is ridiculous. Perhaps families with autism traits and no diagnoses are so stressed out that some people end up hurting others. These ridiculous studies that are confusing correlation with causality are incredibly hurtful in regards to real and positive supports development.

elarissa24
elarissa24

What about genetics? mom could be "on the spectrum" high functioning, and therefor her risk of being abused would be much higher ... 

that happened at least to me

Katy-AnneBinstead
Katy-AnneBinstead

Ok, got it. As usual, it's the mothers fault. Why do we insist on blaming mothers for disabilities we don't understand?

Lornarose13
Lornarose13

This is disgusting you have now made it even more harder for people to understand ausistic children and their families. It is not caused by sexual abuse or smoking. I bet you wouldn't blame the parents for a child in a wheelchair. This has to stop, our lives are hard enough fighting for people to acknowledge this disability without such dangerous comments.

socialmonkey
socialmonkey

This article is ridiculous. Studies show this is due to vaccines. Watch a documentary called "Vaccine Nation". If you have babies, or young children, it's your responsibility to educate yourself on this. You cannot trust the health industry, they're "for profit", which isn't in your best interest.

zoewright95
zoewright95

Does anyone know if having a child after having an autistic child years earlier has an effect on the non autistic child? My brother who is 9 years older than me is autistic and I sometimes feel as if I have a few qualities possibly effected by this. I was just wondering if any research has been done in that area yet as I wonder if there could be any biological factors like this. All though my problems may also be learnt due to being brought up with only an autistic brother.
I would just really like to know if theres any known information/research on this area?

AnnBlake-Tracy
AnnBlake-Tracy

ANTIDEPRESANT USE IS THE MISSING LINK IN THIS STUDY: Did researchers think to ask how many of these research subjects were taking antidepressants? The rate of increase in Autism rates for children born to moms on antidepressants is 2-3 times greater.

Chronic stress is demonstrated by elevated levels of cortisol. Yet Eli Lilly's own research demonstrated LONG ago that one single 30mg dose of Prozac given to someone who has never taken the drug before and only takes that one dose it will DOUBLE the level of cortisol!! But good luck finding any reference to that information anywhere but in my book on the damaging effects of antidepressants because in over two decades of specializing in these adverse effects I have yet to meet a doctor who is even aware of such obvious damage being caused by antidepressants! (Don't fool yourself into thinking Prozac is any different than your "new improved version" of an SSRI/SNRI antidepressant!) But what remains to be seen is just how much higher the cortisol rises when someone is taken off an antidepressant too rapidly - which is most everyone who has ever taken an antidepressant because few know how to come off slowly enough to do so safely and effectively.

Where the abuse comes in is that an extremey high percentage of those on antidepressants begin to have delusions that they were abused which is where the term "False Memory Syndrome" came from. A good example of the Antidepressant-induced false memory of abuse would be comedian Roseanne Barr who has now publicly stated her parents never abused her and all those thoughts came from the prescription drugs (Prozac) she was on. She now refers to that as the worst mistake she has ever made. The years of damage to family relationships for her and so many others is robbing so many of years of precious time together that can never be replaced!

RoseAsSweet
RoseAsSweet

This is such an interesting article because it asks a question about a correlation between two seemingly linked diagnosis... childhood abuse of the mother with autism of the child.  However, it seems that the cause may be due to the flood of stress hormones created by the abuse experienced by the mother.  If this is the case, then the correlation is not due to the abuse but due to the presence of elevated stress hormones.  Therefore, it COULD be just as likely that any traumatic event the mother has experienced could have the same chemical affect on her and her child.

dvmjill
dvmjill

They're getting sooooo CLOSE!!!!!! Why can't someone take one more teeny, tiny step and see that women who were abused as children grow up to MARRY men with autism!?!?!?! That's why (genetics) their kids have it!!!!!!! Marrying a man who gives you NO emotional reciprocity feels like love to someone who was emotionally abused. Being ignored feels terrific when compared to being blamed for everything, and is interpreted as love and acceptance. At least that's my theory :-) 

MayTheBearBrewer
MayTheBearBrewer

What i am trying to find out is if a woman is abused sexually and physically as a child up to an adolescent age can they also develop autism?

DanaMeijler-Gross
DanaMeijler-Gross

You see, it is because of pseudo studies like this and all the misinformation out there that the autism community is so freaking divided.  But let's just, for argument's sake say this was a legitimate study.

First problem:  what qualifies as abuse?  Yelling?  What kid hasn't been yelled at?  If that is your diagnostic criteria to determine abuse than yes, I would say that every mother of an autistic child has been abused.  

Second problem:  Even if this study were scientifically reliable, it doesn't mean that there is an actual scientific and statistical correlation between these two occurrences (abuse and autism)

Third problem:  Even if they could prove a correlation, correlation is not causation.  

Cannabis4Autism
Cannabis4Autism

So in other words, Cannabis use by grandparents may replace alcohol use. As alcohol can increase risk of traumatic child abuse, where cannabis dies not, then we hypothesise that legalising the use of cannabis as an alternative to alcohol may lead to a reduction in cases of autism spectrum disorder, and reduce the severity of all cases where abuse of the mother in her childhood could have been a causative factor.

jonathan-bishop
jonathan-bishop

As someone who is an established researcher in this area, this is not new to me. Anyone who suffers any form of trauma in their life will likely show the symptoms of 'autism'. In my view this is because the trauma impairs the functioning of the prefrontal cortex. Other researchers who have studied the brains of deceased people with 'autism' have found that there are an increased number of cells in the prefrontal cortex of people with 'autism'. On that basis, there is a risk that the mother's psychological traumas in the prefrontal cortex could result in mutations in their offspring's prefrontal cortex, thus replicating the symptoms of 'autism' in the mother's child.

intrimazz
intrimazz

more shocking and newsworthy to me about this study is the awful number of women that were abused as children.... (the correlation to abuse and autism is bs but the correlation to stress has merits) I speak from coming from a family with zero history of autism anywhere but tons of abuse and one member that has 6 was the most abused of all and not one of her children has autism but the one that was not abused has one and the father of that one DOES have a family history of autism).  Too many crappy Psychiatrists.

cee
cee

Why do we always focus on the mothers in these studies, but never on the fathers?  I work with AU children and constantly hear from the parents "he's just like his dad, except..." Since the beginning of research on Autism, all of the focus has been on the mother, and it seems that very little funding has gone into the possibility that it's the father who contributed the genetic material that causes Autism.  

ejwillingham
ejwillingham

The first thing that came to mind when I saw this last week was that many, many girls who are on the autism spectrum or who show those traits are abused in some way as children, by parents, peers, teachers, or others, because of those traits. So ... is it the stress of abuse, or is it that these girls themselves carry genetic variants linked to autism that, as women who bear children, they pass along, and that they endured abuse in childhood because of their own behaviors? I like these huge correlational studies for some things, but they certainly don't answer questions like this. A recent, interesting genetics analysis suggested that for some autism, at least, collective gene variants from both parents (who themselves might manifest a "broad autism phenotype") can aggregate in their offspring to yield what we diagnose as autism.

rocketdetrain
rocketdetrain

Did they track the rate of C section in these women by chance?

pendragon05
pendragon05

What's with all the millions of dollars being funded for these disorders du jour? Today it's autism, ten years ago it was ADD/ADHD, what will tomorrow's disease be? The APA is just one step away from removing autism from its list of mental illnesses - it already removed Aspergers from the autism spectrum list. What would people with kids who reportedly have autism do then? Besides lose government money to help care for and educate their reportedly autistic children?  Food for thought.

zlucky
zlucky

correlation does not equal causation.

T7T
T7T

Ceh is right that choice of partners (the fathers of these autistic children) seems to be entirely overlooked, but he/she seems to suggest that men with autistic characteristics would make worse partners and there I beg to disagree. Probably, they have less of a tendency to abuse, which is why it would make perfect sense to me if women with a history of abuse chose such a partner, which in turn would explain the higher number of children with autism, but this logic appears to have eluded the researchers completely.

maolin
maolin

This article accurately demonstrates the correlation of instant gratification of the InterWebs and immediacy of "news" with lousy proof-reading:

“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 depression and anxiety, ****and physical health outcomes like obesity and lung disease,”
 



hbuck67
hbuck67

"The more severely the women were abused the better they are in bed"

Jeffems
Jeffems

"The more severely the women were abused, the higher their chances of having a child with autism; compared to women who weren’t abused, those who endured the most serious mistreatment were 60% as likely to have an autistic child."

Wait, what? If the seriously-abused are 60% as likely as the non-abused to have an autistic child, then doesn't that mean that the seriously-abused are less likely than the non-abused to have an autistic child?

Gregmans
Gregmans

All you people criticizing this article are crazy.  Don' t you know autism is really caused by abused mothers, older mothers, older fathers, fat mothers, engineer parents, flu infection during pregnancy, not taking folic acid during pregnancy, having a fever during pregnancy, living too close to a highway, air pollution...  What is wrong with you people?  Everything causes autism expect vaccines!

KatieWright
KatieWright

a beyond stupid study 

and yet another example of bureaucrats wasting precious autism research resources

Marty_McFly69
Marty_McFly69

It is a dreadful shame that an article like this barely gets a disappointed sigh from me. 

Whilst there are people talking up heavy metals in fish, vaccines and refrigerator mothers. Now there is Child Abuse = Neurological difference  in Hardwiring and difference in genes. 

Does this equation make sense? To anyone? Is this worthy of an article? Was this worthy a result from a group of experts time? Is this the best that they can come out with? Did they think for a moment that this would be endorse by anyone of any reasonable intellect? By publishing this, is Alexandra Sifferlin making this very stupid endorsement? 

Second Sigh.

BenisonAnne
BenisonAnne

There is no good evidence that smoking or drinking alcohol during pregnancy increases autism risk anyway, so why were they considered confounders? 

MaurineMeleck
MaurineMeleck

this  ridiculous study  just turned up because the CDC just announced that 1 in 50 children in this country now have autism. also 1 in 31 boys.  The political goal is to distract. anything  that will distract people from the real truth about the man-made disease-autism

Is there another childhood disease where 1 in 31 boys are affected??  It's beyond shocking that nobody including most doctors, government health agencies, politicians--seem to care at all.  or them autism is about as interesting as  "Swamp People."

Maurine Meleck(grandmother to 1 in 31--vaccine injured)

AndrewKilroy
AndrewKilroy

I have never heard anything so insulting to my people before. I also note that my comment was deleted.

sgarvey101
sgarvey101

correlation vs. causation 

More crappy science by crappy scientists....

may4
may4

This is an insulting study, so now we stop researching legitimate reasons and just study anything that is salacious and bring in money.  Let the blame game begin.  So now the question is why are there more autism cases now as oppose to the 19th century when abuse was more used, less reported, if reported at all.  How about the 20th century, "spare the rod, spoil the child"?  Did they answer that, no. Ridiculous.  Put the money where it will do more good, no into these scientists with too much time on their hands.

AnneVincent
AnneVincent

This is what happens when "social scientists" are allowed to make ridiculous assumptions and then come to even more ridiculous conclusions about scientific subjects. We know that neuro-developmental disorders are at least partially associated with specific genetic differences. We also know that some environmental factors must come into play, since genetic variations do not account for all effected vrs. un-effected individuals.  A retrospective association of any particular environmental influence (especially one of relatively low statistical association) is not worth much. There is a good possibility that  individuals who have any observable common experience,  also have other shared experiences and exposures or genetic similarities, that might be the more significant shared factors. The potential  association that this article is trying to highlight would need to be confirmed with a double-blind prospective study - which could never be done, and would never (obviously) confirm any real cause/effect association.

ceh
ceh

Did I just miss it...? There was no mention of the fathers in any of the findings. All of those physical causes may be true but abuse can lead to people making poor choices all over the place including in choice of partner(s).

JulianaYoung
JulianaYoung

Many People More than your study have extremely healthy children. This does Not mean your children are going to be born with autism,or other developemental issues or brain conditons.I think this article and study is insane. Autism is a broad spectrum across our country.Children develope it from all walks of life, Regardless of their Mothers childhood abuse. Maybe the author needs to take a look into her study and search elsewhere for the causes of autism.Because the mother had abuse during their childhood DOES NOT mean they are more likely to develope autism. The medical communty doesn't even have a base for why children get autism. We are still trying to even grasp understanding. So unless you research medically, and broaden your research participents this study is insulting and put's fear into womens minds about having a baby.  Next study could be- Men and Women who's fathers weren't emotinally there when they were young are more likely to have children with complicated ( medical) brain issues (sarcasism).Were the research participants all mothers (of children with autism) who had been through abuse? Autism is everywhere nowadays, regardless of race, Background and finantial status.. A good question is- How many children with Autism come from a parent without childhood abuse?  let me know the # This article has talk of child abuse passing on genetic defects/ I call BS