PhotoAutism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a highly complex developmental disability that affects a person’s ability to communicate and interact with others. Its signs usually appear in early childhood.

Once fairly rare, today it is increasingly, and distressingly, common. According to government health officials, one in every 68 children born in the U.S. in 2014 showed ASD symptoms.

“There is no known single cause of autism, but increased awareness and early diagnosis/intervention and access to appropriate services/supports lead to significantly improved outcomes,” according to the Autism Society.

Search for causes

While there is no known cause, there is plenty of speculation and the search for causes has become the intense object of research. Professor Anick Bérard of the University of Montreal and its affiliated CHU Sainte-Justine children’s hospital, is among the latest researchers to offer a theory.

She believes taking anti-depressants during pregnancy greatly raises the risk of having an autistic child. Her findings are published in JAMA Pediatrics.

“The variety of causes of autism remain unclear, but studies have shown that both genetics and environment can play a role,” Bérard said. “Our study has established that taking antidepressants during the second or third trimester of pregnancy almost doubles the risk that the child will be diagnosed with autism by age seven, especially if the mother takes selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, often known by its acronym SSRIs.”

Extensive data

The Canadian researchers worked with data from the Quebec Pregnancy Cohort and studied 145,456 children between the time of their conception up to age 10. The study included data about the mother’s use of antidepressants and the child’s eventual diagnosis of autism, as well as other details that helped the team to focus in on the specific impact of antidepressant drugs.

Among the factors taken into consideration: genetic predisposition and family history; maternal age; depression; and socio-economic factors such as being exposed to poverty.

“We defined exposure to antidepressants as the mother having had one or more prescription for antidepressants filled during the second or third trimester of the pregnancy. This period was chosen as the infant’s critical brain development occurs during this time,” Bérard said. “Amongst all the children in the study, we then identified which children had been diagnosed with a form of autism by looking at hospital records indicating diagnosed childhood autism, atypical autism, Asperger’s syndrome, or a pervasive developmental disorder. Finally, we looked for a statistical association between the two groups, and found a very significant one: an 87% increased risk.”

The researchers conclude that it is “biologically plausible” that anti-depressants are causing autism if used at the time of brain development in the womb. They say the findings are “hugely important” as six to 10 percent of pregnant women are currently being treated for depression with antidepressants.

For women who are pregnant, or may become pregnant, no unilateral action should be taken without first discussing it with a health care provider. If you have concerns, reference this study in your discussions.

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