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The Environmental Factors of Autism

Despite ongoing research and medical advances, no one knows the true root cause of autism, but what are the environmental non-genetic risks that are studied and implicated when researching the phenomenon? In this post, we’ll discuss the environmental factors that are often associated with an autism diagnosis.

What are Environmental Risk Factors?

When studying the cause or root of a certain condition, disease, or medical phenomenon, medical researchers tend to look at both genetic and environmental factors as potential causes.

An environmental risk factor is defined as anything that can alter an individual’s likelihood to have a condition outside of the realm of genetics. Environmental factors exist independent of the individual’s biology, and influence them through chance or circumstance. Often times they lay outside the realm of anyone’s control.

The Environmental Risk Factors Associated with Autism

Though many of the studies were inconclusive, some of the most commonly researched environmental risk factors include:

  • Being born prematurely
  • Being born to a mother with diabetes
  • Being born after an older sibling
  • Being born to an older than average father
  • Mothers who are on prenatal antidepressants
  • Mothers with autoimmune diseases
  • Having a low birth weight
  • Mothers who experience high blood pressure during pregnancy
  • Mothers who experience many fevers throughout pregnancy
  • And many more…

Research on these and other factors have had mixed results, but the studies involved have led researchers to interesting conclusions. For one, it is clear that the maternal immune system plays some role in autism risk, even if only slightly. Certain drugs like Valproate that treat Epilepsy, have also been proven to cause birth defects and potentially increase the risk of autism. To further narrow and pin down the true environmental risk factors that heighten the chance of autism, researchers are hard at work on projects like the Environmental Influences on Child Health Outcomes  project o find more statistically significant causes. Every development in this process helps us better understand what risks are involved while also strengthening our understanding of how to treat autism symptoms.

What can Parents do to Lessen their Exposure to Environmental Risks?

Families who are at a high risk of having a child on the autism spectrum, like those who already have a child on the spectrum, should talk to their doctor or genetic counselor early and often for the best advice and recommendations. 

The most general thing women who are pregnant can do is follow the doctors’ orders and take plenty of prenatal vitamins to care for themselves and their baby.
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November 4, 2019

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