Special Needs Now

Does Chemical Exposure During Pregnancy Cause Autism?

One mom sounds off on a recent study that links pregnant womens' use of common cosmetics and cleaners to autism.

pregnant woman putting on makeup in bathroom mirror Shutterstock
Products such as certain cosmetics, household cleaners, pesticides, and other environmental pollutants may have a role in triggering autism genes, says a new study out of York University. In the study, which was published in the European Journal of Neuroscience, the researchers suggest that, "expectant mothers in the first trimester avoid certain cosmetics, cleaning agents, and medicines." This study looked at type of products, frequency of use, and duration of exposure, and how all of that affects a developing brain. Full of graphs, references to other research, and scientific jargon, this study is difficult to wade through, but the message it promotes is clear: Parents may have a role in causing a child's autism, and more education may help us prevent autism in the future.

Now, I understand that autism has genetic roots, and I firmly believe that it's neurological, but this sort of message makes me angry, partially because I refuse to see autism as an injury that happens either in utero or after birth. Doing so ignores the fact that autistic people have been around for centuries—long before vaccines, cosmetics, or many of these environmental chemicals existed. I'm also frustrated by studies like this because I think they contribute to the fear-mongering that surrounds autism. This research leaves expectant moms afraid of their mascara or dish detergent, and it encourages the idea that having a child on the spectrum is something a parent could have prevented.

When my son first got his diagnosis 4 years ago, I was just this sort of parent. I cried myself to sleep many a night, blaming myself for my son's neurology, despite the fact that I had a normal pregnancy with only a few complications during birth. Sure, I remember bleaching my bathroom early in my pregnancy, and I'm positive I had a drink before I knew I was pregnant—but so did lots of my friends, and their kids aren't on the spectrum. I also know many moms of children with autism who ate nothing but organic foods, didn't wear makeup, cleaned with vinegar and water, and generally were paragons of health. All of this is to say, autism is complicated and its causes are still unknown. But I don't think it's something parents cause, unless we mean that in the sense that our genes "cause" our children to have a certain eye or hair color.

And yes, of course, we should eat healthy food and exercise during pregnancy—that's good advice in general. And, yes, we should avoid unnecessary chemical exposure when pregnant and afterwards. And certainly we should consider what's in the products we use. But we shouldn't do so because we're terrified of autism. We should do so for our own health, for the health of the planet, and for the overall health of our children both before they're born and as they grow.

Jamie Pacton lives near Portland where she drinks loads of coffee, dreams of sailing, and enjoys each day with her husband and two sons. Find her at www.jamiepacton.com, Facebook (Jamie Pacton), and Twitter @jamiepacton.