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Causes of autism

Until recently, most scientists believed that autism is caused mostly by genetic factors. But groundbreaking new research indicates that environmental factors may be just as important in the development of autism—if not more so—than genes.

It appears that certain babies are born with a genetic vulnerability to autism that is then triggered by something in the external environment, either while he or she is still in the womb or sometime after birth.

It’s important to note that the environment, in this context, means anything outside the body. It’s not limited to things like pollution or toxins in the atmosphere. In fact, one of the most important environments appears to be the prenatal environment.

Prenatal factors that may contribute to autism

  • Taking antidepressants during pregnancy, especially in the first 3 months
  • Nutritional deficiencies early in pregnancy, particularly not getting enough folic acid
  • The age of the mother (children born to older fathers also have a higher risk of autism)
  • Complications at or shortly after birth, including very low birth weight and neonatal anemia
  • Maternal infections during pregnancy
  • Exposure to chemical pollutants, such as metals and pesticides, while pregnant

While more research on these prenatal risk factors is needed, if you’re pregnant or trying to conceive, it can’t hurt to take steps now to reduce your baby’s risk of autism.

Reducing the risk of autism: Tips for expectant mothers

  • Take a multivitamin. Taking 400 micrograms of folic acid daily helps prevent birth defects such as spina bifida. It’s not clear whether this will also help reduce risk of autism, but taking the vitamins can’t hurt.
  • Ask about SSRIs. Women who are taking an SSRI (or who develop depression during pregnancy) should talk with a clinician about all the risks and benefits of these drugs. Untreated depression in a mother can also affect her child’s well-being later on, so this is not a simple decision to make.
  • Practice prenatal care. Eating nutritious food, trying to avoid infections, and seeing a clinician for regular check-ups can increase the chances of giving birth to a healthy child.

Source: Harvard Health Publications

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