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Jan 3

The Cause of Autism May Not Be Unknown



Today, the often-repeated refrain is, “The cause of autism is unknown.” Yet, even though most so-called autism experts generally admit that the cause of autism has not been proven, they generally offer only non-environmental theories.

Bernard, et al., found in a 2001 article in Medical Hypotheses that mercury in certain vaccines caused autism. Cannell, also in Medical Hypotheses (2007), theorized that autistic children suffered from a lack of Vitamin D. Giulivi, et al., in a 2010 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, blamed autism on something called “mitochondrial dysfunction”–the brains inability to produce energy.

A 2011 study by Ozonoff in Pediatrics which looked at more than 600 cases of autism and found that if a child has the disorder, a younger sibling has a 19 percent chance of also having it, concluded that autism is genetic. However, this statistic does not prove genetics as the cause, since it could explain family parenting patterns.

While none of these theories has been validated, much research has meanwhile been done with mothers who suffer from postpartum depression or major depression. A study by Laura Murray in the Journal of child Psychology and Psychiatry in 1992 showed that children of severely depressed mothers develop severe cognitive and relationship problems by 18 months (the time when autistic symptoms begin appearing). Salvanos, et al. studied 291 mothers and infants and found a strong link between postpartum depression and autistic traits. The article appeared in European Psychiatry (2009).

Other researchers, J. Hallmayer et al., stated succinctly what some have intimated. “We have to look at both sides of the coin.” His study in the Archives of General Psychiatry provided scientific evidence that both genetics and the environment produce autism. Using state records, the researchers, who were all at Stanford University, identified 192 pairs of twins in which at least one of the two had some form of autism. Among these sets, there were 54 pairs of identical and 138 pairs of fraternal twins.

What they found was that the genes twins share can increase the risk of getting autism by about 38%, but the environment that twins share may increase the risk an estimated 58%. The environmental risk is nearly twice that of genetics.

Evidence is accumulating that maternal depression leads to severe developmental problems in children. A study by the Kennedy Krieger Institute released on their website in 2008 found that 46% of mothers of autistic children reported being depressed following pregnancy. Ainsworth, in her famous study of attachment (Ainsworth, et al., 1978), found that children could develop an avoidant attachment, with symptoms very like the symptoms of autism, when they had a mother who was avoidant toward them as infants.

The increasing number of such studies seems to indicate that there is a relationship between a mother’s depression (and hence neglect) and a child’s subsequent development. The developmental defects brought about by postpartum depression are similar to those of autism. It therefore seems to follow that there is a relation between postpartum depression and autism.

The universal tendency to protect the feelings of mothers has perhaps led to the environmental theory of the cause of autism to be ignored. Mothers feelings are important. They do the very best they can, and they don’t get the credit they deserve. And it should also be noted that there are good reasons why mothers might suffer from depression, postpartum or otherwise, and they do not intentionally seek to harm their babies. I would suggest, however, that raising emotionally healthy children should be our number one priority. If it is true that postpartum depression leads to developmental defects, that is something that should be taken notice of.

Some would say that even if a mother has postpartum depression for a month or two, any damage done to the baby can be overcome later on. This is true, early damage can be overcome. However we are learning how crucial those first weeks and months of life are–and indeed, how crucial the prenatal period is, for development. Harm done then can affect a person’s personality and health the rest of his or her life if it is not caught in time.

Even if we don’t buy into this theory completely, we can still take precautionary measures. Common sense tells us a mother suffering from severe depression will not be able to provide the attention a newborn needs.

Therefore, if a mother has postpartum depression and can’t care for her baby, perhaps–for the sake of the child–someone else such as the husband or aunt or grandmother should step in.

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