Once a rare disorder, autism has become distressingly common. While estimates of autism rates vary widely, at least 1% of all children suffer from some form of this condition. Furthermore, the increase in the numbers of autistic children seems not to be due to better diagnosis: there really are more autistic children being born.
If you are planning to have a family, you no doubt wonder about how to minimize the risk of this disorder. Unfortunately, some of the risk is genetic. However, children don’t inherit autism per se: they inherit a predisposition to develop. For the condition to emerge, environmental factors must trigger its development.
Epidemiological studies suggest that advanced parental age at conception is a significant risk factor. Autism is far more common among children conceived by parents older than forty. Thus, if you are not pregnant, you may want to have a child earlier rather than later.
Pregnancy complications seem to play a role also. Some of the most important are problems with the umbilical cord, and birth trauma. Preventing these problems requires good prenatal care.
Low birth weight babies are far more prone to develop this disorder than are larger ones. You can reduce the risk of having a small baby by eating well yourself: eat fish two or three times per week, serve leafy green and yellow vegetables, and add a source of probiotics to your diet.
Other studies implicate gestational diabetes as well as maternal bleeding and medication use during pregnancy. Prenatal exposure to infections is also a risk factor. The risk of infection can be greatly reduced by scrupulous attention to cleanliness, avoidance of people with illnesses, and a healthy diet that will build your immune system and reduce your risk of contracting an illness.
Some , but not all, research indicates that low levels of vitamin D may play a role in the development of autism. It would be prudent, therefore, to include a good source of this nutrient in your diet. Dark meat fish like tuna and salmon are good sources. Cod liver oil is an excellent source of this nutrient. Be careful though: cod liver oil is rich in vitamin A and too much could lead to vitamin A toxicity. Know, also, that both too much and too little vitamin D is linked to an increased rate of schizophrenia. Vitamin D, like many nutrients, has a U-shaped dosage curve. Optimal amounts of the substance provide the best results while both too much and too little are harmful. Play it safe and ask your doctor before taking any concentrated food or supplement.
When considering your risks, remember that there is little evidence to prove that one risk factor causes autism. Rather, it is prenatal or early post-natal exposure to a range of problems that compromise the baby’s health.
Much anecdotal evidence—which is not proof—link vaccines to autism. The medical profession denies that this is the case and believes that the risk of often-fatal childhood diseases is far greater than the risk from the vaccinations. Researchers point to case control studies showing that autism rates do not rise for specific vaccines or for the total number of vaccinations. However, to the best of my knowledge, the research has compared children receiving fewer vaccines with those receiving more vaccines. The studies have not compared completely unvaccinated children with vaccinated children.
One line of research suggests that it is not vaccines themselves that cause autism but the painkiller—acetaminophen—that parents give to relieve post-vaccination distress. Some children, for genetic reasons, seem unable to metabolize this substance. When the body tries other ways of breaking it down, it can lead to immune activation and other problems linked to autism.
While much research remains to be done, proactive steps to control these most common–and often preventable–risk factors can tilt the odds of having a healthy child in your favor. The best places to start are with good prenatal care and a healthy diet.
For more information on eating right during pregnancy, see this book available on Amazon Kindle.