Autism Linked To Air Pollution: What’s A Parent To Do?

Exposure to major pollution during pregnancy could double the odds a child will have autism, says a study out today from the Harvard School of Public Health, with baby boys at particular risk. Researchers examined data from  325 women (all nurses) from around the country who had a child with autism and 22,000 who had a child who didn’t. They then matched the findings with data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to estimate the women’s exposure to air pollution when they were pregnant. While other studies have suggested links between autism and air pollution, this is the first study to provide a nationwide look at the problem.

With the growing numbers of kids with the developmental disorder—1 in 50 kids has autism, according to the Centers for Disease Control—and the rise of powerhouse advocacy and research groups like Autism Speaks, more money is going toward researching the causes. Genetics has been shown to play a role; the risk of having a child with autism rises with the father’s age, found one study—and an advanced maternal age poses a risk, too, found another. Meanwhile, siblings of autism are at a greater risk for the disorder, research has also discovered.

These studies can raise concerns for anyone considering having their first child, or another one. There aren’t a whole lot of answers yet about how to prevent the developmental disorder during pregnancy, other than having kids younger in life and downing your prenatal vitamins, shown in one study to reduce the risk of having a child with autism. An intervention that could protect a mother from pollution during pregnancy has yet to be researched. While one study recently published in the Journal of Neurology found that a gene linked to the autism spectrum could be manipulated in mice, experts say gene therapy for humans is still years away.

For those who have kids with autism, the latest study may provide yet another piece to the autism puzzle. Michael Maloney, executive director of the nonprofit Organization for Autism Research, mused in a statement that while parents “naturally want to know what causes autism…most just want to know how to help their child.” We’re lucky to be living in a time where there are many resources for children with autism, and other special needs, from specialized schools to extracurricular programs.

Hopefully, though, these studies won’t strike fear into people. As those of us who have kids with disabilities know, having a child with special needs is not a terrible fate—in fact, for most of us it’s just the opposite. We love our children as much as any mothers love their kids. We think they are as beautiful and adorable as any other kids. When we look at them, we don’t see kids who are defective; we see awesome kids who inspire us in ways we never could have imagined before they came along.

From my other blog:

How did you decide on having another kid?

Toys aren’t us: Dealing with special needs parent buying compulsion

Special needs dads are so hot when…


Photo of boy on grass via Shutterstock

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