Women who had been abused as a child have an increased likelihood of having a child with autism, according to a new study.
Researchers aren’t sure what the exact connection is. But investigators at The Harvard School of Public Health looked at more than 50,000 women, and found that those who reported the highest levels of abuse as children were 60 percent more likely to have children with some type of autism-spectrum disorder.
The reasons for the apparent connection, reported Wednesday in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, remain murky.
“We were surprised to find it was so strongly associated with the woman’s child abuse,” says Andrea L. Roberts, a research associate at Harvard and lead author of the paper.
“We don’t know why. We looked at nine risk factors for pregnant women. People who have been abused tend to have more behavioral health risks as adults. But we did the analysis and found those risk factors only explained about 7 percent of the increased risk.”
Roberts offered one hypothesis, although the study did not have enough data to back it up: women who have been abused are more likely to have signs of inflammation in their blood, which has been associated with autism.
Both women and men who have survived abused also have a more exaggerated response to stress, which is also associated with disorders on the spectrum.
“This study is really preliminary,” Michael Rosanoff, associate director of public health, research and scientific review at Autism Speaks tells Parenting.com. “Really we don’t know what the mechanism is behind this. It certainly warrants more investigation.”