Is Your Baby at Risk of Autism?

Autism babyIt’s only natural to worry about developmental disorders in your baby. Is there anything you can do? Is there any way to know? Autism is a developmental disorder that gets lots of attention and sparks legitimate concerns in pregnant moms.

Autism is defined as a brain development disorder that causes problems in the way your child communicates, interacts with others, and behaves. Many years ago, researchers thought that autism was caused by bad parenting or that it was a type of childhood schizophrenia. Not too long ago, some researchers believed that vaccines caused autism. Today we know more about what doesn’t cause autism than what does.

We do know that there is a much wider range of symptoms than we though. These range from mild to severe. Some children have severe mental challenges and some have average or even above average intelligence. The name has been changed to Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), to accommodate this wide range. ASD includes classic autism, Asperger’s syndrome, and pervasive developmental disorders.

Is Autism Spectrum Disorder a Genetic Disorder?

Researchers have identified clusters of genes as possible suspects. We know that genes are not the only cause because of identical twin studies. Identical twins share 100 percent of their genes. But the studies show that if one identical twin has ASD, the other twin has only about a 60 percent chance of having ASD.

Most experts think that there has to be something in a child’s environment before birth or after birth that triggers these genes to cause autism. It would be great to know those triggers. Viral infections, exposures to chemicals, some medications, and chemical imbalances in the body are just possibilities at this point.

Is Your Child at Risk?

Knowing which child is at risk is complicated. Unlike other types of genetic diseases, ASD is not predictable. Right now, there is no genetic screening available for ASD. It is still too early. You may carry some genes that raise your child’s risk, but these genes may never be triggered. Here are some agreed upon risk factors:

  • Having a boy: boys are about 5 times more likely to develop ASD.
  • Having a sibling with ASD: children who have brothers or sisters with ASD are at higher risk.
  • Taking some medications during pregnancy: these include valproic acid and thalidomide.
  • Children of older parents are at higher risk.
  • Having some viral infections during pregnancy: German measles during pregnancy increases ASD risk.
  • Being born with another genetic disease: these include fragile X syndrome, tuberous sclerosis, neurofibromatosis, or Rett syndrome.

Researchers around the world are trying to learn more about the genetics of ASD. They are looking for gene mutations, inherited genes, and triggers that may cause ASD. This research may lead to a reliable screening test for autism, like there is for other genetic diseases. It may also lead to breakthroughs in earlier diagnosis, prevention, and treatment.

On the bright side, if your child were to develop ASD, treatment is improving. ASD can be diagnosed by about age two in most kids. There is no blood test. Diagnosis is made by a developmental history and physical exam. Studies show that interventions in this early age significantly improve IQ, language, and behavior.

Christopher Iliades
Dr. Chris Iliades is a medical doctor with 20 years of experience in clinical medicine and clinical research. Chris has been a full time medical writer and journalist since 2004. His byline appears in over 1,000 articles online including EverydayHealth, The Clinical Advisor, and Healthgrades. He has also written for print media including Cruising World Magazine, MD News, and The Johns Hopkins Children's Center Magazine. Chris lives with his wife and close to his three children and four grandchildren in the Boston area.

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