There is no medical test for autism, or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), and no genetic tests exist to predict ASD in utero. ASD is a complex disorder whose cause has not been determined. Because there is no one cause of ASD, preventing the disorder is not possible. However, researchers have identified some risk factors that are associated with increased susceptibility of ASD. Some of these risks are preventable; others are not.
Researchers have identified factors surrounding birth that are associated with an increased risk of autism, such as breech presentation at birth, low Apgar scores (Apgar scores evaluate a baby’s well-being at 5 minutes after birth), and birth before 35 weeks of gestation. Studies conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have indicated that children who are born early or underweight have a risk of developing autism that is nearly double the rate of those born full-term at a healthy weight.
While breech presentation, delivery before 35 weeks, and certain factors associated with a low Apgar score are likely not preventable, sound prenatal care may prevent low birth weight and, in some cases, early delivery. Any steps taken to prevent these events, such as early and thorough prenatal medical care and healthy weight gain by the mother, will ensure a healthier baby in general. While these may or may not prevent autism, reducing any risks to the fetus and baby can only benefit him or her.
Researchers have also found a link between a parental history of schizophrenia-like psychosis, and a parental history of affective disorders including depression and bipolar disorder, and a child’s risk for autism. Again, these factors are not preventable.
Research has also indicated that some genes may be responsible for autism. Although no single gene has been identified as a cause of autism, some families have a pattern of autism. It appears that some children are born susceptible to autism, and research is being conducted on whether the development of some genes interferes with brain development that results in autism. Among identical twins, research has discovered, if one twin has autism, then the other is affected about 75% of the time. The figure for non-identical twins is about 3%. In families with one child who an ASD, then there is a 2 to 8 % chance of a second child also having an ASD. This information may be useful in preventing autism, but it carries with it its own set of moral and ethical issues for parents who must make their own decisions regarding family planning.
Other factors in the development of autism include the mother’s health. Recent studies by researchers at John Hopkins University link autism with a mother’s autoimmune disorders such as celiac disease and rheumatoid arthritis. The Johns Hopkins study concluded that, if one of these disorders is present in the mother, the risk of autism in her child is increased threefold.
Certain medical conditions such as tuberous sclerosis, congenital rubella syndrome, Fragile X syndrome, and untreated phenylketonuria are associated with an increased risk for autism. While the development of certain congenital and genetic factors may not be preventable, treatment of phenylketonuria may help to prevent the risk of developing autism.
Exposure to some harmful drugs during pregnancy, such as thalidomide, is also associated with an increased risk of developing an ASD; exposure to these drugs is a risk factor that is preventable.
No scientific evidence exists to link routine childhood vaccinations with an increased risk of developing and ASD, so not immunizing a child not only does not help prevent ASD, but also puts him or her at risk for developing other serious medical issues.
Certain risk factors for autism are not preventable. However, getting thorough prenatal care and genetic testing as appropriate can only benefit children in general, if not also helping to minimize risk factors for autism.
Resources & References:
Resources & References:
Read the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s ASD information here.
Read the Autism Society of America’s “What Causes Autism” page here.