Harvard Study: Women Abused Young More Likely To Have Autistic Children

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A new study from the Harvard School of Public Health finds that women who were abused when they were young appear to be more likely to have children with autism.

The study, just out online in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, is the first to suggest that abuse — physical, emotional or sexual — that is suffered early in life may increase a woman’s odds of having a child with autism. It looked at data from more than 50,000 women, and found that the women who had been most severely abused were more than three times as likely to have an autistic child as women who had not been abused.

Lead researcher Andrea Roberts says the findings highlight the long impact child abuse can have: “We know that child abuse strongly affects the person who experiences it,” she said, “but our research suggests that these effects may also reach across generations.”

How could abuse in childhood translate into autism in the next generation? Child abuse is known to lead to inflammation inside the body and a stronger stress response, the so-called “fight or flight” response. But at this point, Roberts says, researchers can only speculate on how child abuse could lead to next-generation autism.

From the press release:
“Our study identifies a completely new risk factor for autism,” said lead author Andrea Roberts, research associate in the HSPH Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences. “Further research to understand how a woman’s experience of abuse is associated with autism in her children may help us better understand the causes of autism and identify preventable risk factors.”

The authors examined data from more than 50,000 women enrolled in the Nurses’ Health Study II. They found that it was not just women exposed to the most serious levels of abuse who had higher risk of having a child with autism, but also a large number of women who experienced moderate abuse. While about 2% of women reported the most serious abuse, even women in the top 25% of abuse severity — which included mostly women who experienced more moderate levels of abuse — were 60% more likely to have a child with autism compared with women who did not experience abuse. These results suggest that childhood abuse is not only very harmful for the person who directly experiences it, but may also increase risk for serious disabilities in the next generation, the authors said.

Delving further, the researchers looked at nine pregnancy-related risk factors to see if they were linked to higher risk of having a child with autism in women who were abused as children. These nine risk factors —including gestational diabetes, preeclampsia, and smoking—have been previously associated with an increased likelihood of having a child with autism.

The researchers did find that women who had experienced abuse as children had a higher risk for each of the pregnancy-related risk factors that were examined. Surprisingly, though, those risk factors accounted for only 7% of the increased likelihood of having a child with autism among women who were abused.

Given that these factors accounted for so little of the association between mother’s experience of abuse and risk of autism in her children, the authors speculated that other factors may be playing a role. One possibility, they said, is that long-lasting effects of abuse on women’s biological systems, such as the immune system and stress-response system, are responsible for increasing their likelihood of having a child with autism. More research is needed to tease out the mechanisms involved in the maternal childhood abuse-autism link, the authors said.

Just to add a bit of commentary: First, how I hate findings, valuable as they are, that prove that life is not fair. That a girl who suffers abuse is thus likelier to grow up to face the challenges of having an autistic child — who is writing these rules?

And second, if you read the full paper, you come near the end to four interesting theories of the possible mechanisms behind this apparent link:

• I’d sum this up as the “overall hard life” theory:

“First, additional unmeasured perinatal adverse circumstances associated with childhood abuse, such as infection, poor diet,  insufficient prenatal care, medication use, illegal drug use, and stressful life events, may account for all of the associations we found.”

• The stress/immunity theory mentioned above:

“Second, the experience of maternal childhood abuse… may cause alterations to the mother’s biological systems, including the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, the hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal axis, and the immune system, which may in turn directly increase risk for autism in children…”Maternal inflammation affects the developing brain, and maternal inflammation and immune function have been hypothesized to be causes of autism.”

• Epigenetics

Very roughly, changes in how genes are expressed, or turned “off” and “on” — a system that is more easily mutable than our underlying DNA, but can produce changes that can be inherited.

• Plain old genetics

“Maternal exposure to abuse in childhood may be an indicator of genetic risk for autism in offspring; mental illness in parents is associated with child abuse perpetration, and the results of studies have suggested that genetic risk for autism may overlap with genetic risk for other mental disorders. Therefore, perpetration of child abuse by the grandparents and experience of abuse in childhood by the mother may be indicators of genetic risk for autism in the child.”

Readers, any favorite theory here? How else to explain the link this study found?

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  • L.

    It could be that some of the women are undiagnosed autistic; Hence the parents abusing them.

  • Rosemary

    What impact to the mother and child on the issues epigenetics for relinquished babies that is the slave trade issues for young mothers of the war years to the present date. Mothers grieve the baby stolen all their life. How does this affect them?
    How does religious abuses and gov/state abuses affect the young person. The tortured live lives of quiet their life destroyed for the most. Raked with grief for parents who suffered their own abuses from Gov and Community eg police and department that abuse children and their life much worse than only possible abuse. these departmental social workers/ courts etc who abandon the child to orphanages saying parents do not care when it is not true for many.

  • Eli Cardenas

    Autism has many factors and I’m sure this is one more. Mothers with compromised inmunity, fathers with asperger symtoms, some vaccines and it is ready, you have an autistic child!… I was emotionally abused in childhood and a friend was sexually abused, both of us have autistic childs, this is not a coincidence.

  • Elsa Baroness

    I think the media are at fault for not using responsible phrasing in describing this study. Readers are correct: the focus is on the mothers, not on the correlation. Like others, I found the title of this story unsettling. A title like, “Prevalence of autism found in children of abuse survivors,” would sound less like a blame game, with language in the article that focuses less on the mothers and more on the circumstances. After all, prevalence and likelihood are two very different things when it comes to medicine.

  • tsprek01

    This is ridiculous! Were pulling at strings now!

  • Katie Wright

    We have such a small amount of research $. We MUST invest it more wisely than this.
    It has long been well established that anyone who has suffered horrible trauma and, subsequently, their children, are higher risk for psychological problems and developmental disorders- especially if they do not receive help (which I wish the authors had pointed out).
    However, to link autism in such a simplistic fashion to sexual abuse survivors is unhelpful and cruel.
    As a clinician in this field I can tell you that this research will hurt already traumatized women and the cloud of autism will now hang over their heads as they consider parenthood. We do not need to investigate this. We know sexual abuse is a terrible thing. We do need to investigate environmental factors withIN our control and stop looking backwards and setting up these useless mother blaming or victim blaming paradigms.

  • http://www.facebook.com/SJOleksy Samantha Oleksy

    Important to note that correlation does not imply causation. Just because women who were abused are more likely to have autistic children does not mean that the abuse caused autism. As another commenter stated, perhaps women who were abused are more likely to choose men who were on the autism spectrum.

  • rod

    How old were the subjects of the study? I would think that early abuse would lead to trust issues, etc. and therefore a likelihood of forming the sort of relationship that leads to carrying a baby to term happening later in life than average – and numerous links between pregnancy after a certain age and autism spectrum disorder prevalence have been established. Seems like there are a lot of important details missing here, including the fathers as the first poster pointed out.

    • mrsyork94

      Did you read the study? This research isn’t “blaming” anybody. It is simply looking at a possible link between a woman’s history of abuse and her having a child who happens to have autism. No blame. Just a connection.

      • Vanitas

        Seems nearly everything correlates to increased risk of autism. This is the problem with statistics correlation does not necessarily mean causation. Seriously I have a son with autism and every two weeks there is some new “study” linking some new variable to autism rates. It is complete BS. You would think 200 years ago when abuse rates were probably 3 times what they are now nearly every child would be Autistic. Is Harvard trying to say abuse rates are soaring? Autism rates sure seem to be. I don’t need BS studies linking everything from drinking milk to abuse causing autism. My son needs help which is not available because everyone correlates EVERYTHING to autism with statistics. Next headline: Global Warming causes Autism. You have to be kidding me.

  • whatttt?

    Excuse me, but has it ever occurred to them, if they’re going to blame the mothers for something, that abused women may naturally seek out autism range men for mates? And that the autism may be coming from the fathers? I know women who had traumatic childhoods, who ended up with husbands with Asperger’s. So, it was no surprise when their children had Asperger’s, too. This was a very one-sided, blame-the-mother kind of study. Not scientific at all. Women do not conceive without the input of a man. Why didn’t they study the father’s at the same time?

    • careyg

      (From Carey) What a fascinating theory…but please don’t accuse this study’s authors of “blaming” mothers — I have no doubt that was the last thing they had in mind, and the study carries not even the slightest intimation that mothers are in some way “to blame” for a possible effect that was in no way of their own making and that no one has even suspected until now. If anything, it highlights the fact that abusers may do even more damage than we knew…

      • Mrm

        Yes Joanna. My stepmother beat me for wrinkles in the blanket after I made up her bed, and its my deficient gut flora that brought that on.

    • Andrea Roberts

      I am the author of the study. Most of my research is focused on the mental and physical effects of childhood abuse, and I am very compassionate toward people who have experienced abuse. That is part of what drives my research, so I am in no way “blaming” the mother.
      I appreciate your interesting comment, and partly agree with you. What you are describing is called “mate selection” in the scientific literature. Although the sample we studied is comprised only of women, we have also collected information about their partners (the fathers) and will likely be addressing the hypothesis you raise in further studies. Doing research is generally a detailed, careful process, so in a particular paper there is only room to describe a little piece of the whole research program. What we described in this paper was the association between a woman’s childhood abuse and autism in her children, which has not been documented before. Now we can continue to investigate possible causes of this association.
      Best wishes,
      Andrea Roberts

      • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

        the only way to find out is more research

  • Reasonable?

    I would like to see a cross cultural study of this effect.
    Do women abused in developing countries also have a higher risk of having autistic children. I wonder because autism is also classified as condition of civilation.
    Is there something more to effect of abuse on inflammation?
    I’m reading Epidemic of Absence which makes the argument that our inflammatory processes are out of balance due to lack of exposure to certain types of infections which modulate our immune system (in positive ways). I’m wondering whether the idea could extend all way to autism…..
    I know this is a conceptual stretch, but maybe there is something there.