Autism Spectrum Disorder is the fastest-growing developmental disorder in the United States, affecting some 1 in 68 children each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Questions over what causes autism and why diagnoses have risen in recent years have been hotly debated in the medical community — and among parents concerned over their child’s risk. New research released this week suggests that parents may be able to help prevent autism, however. Researchers found that vitamin deficiency during pregnancy could affect autism risk — and taking a daily prenatal vitamin with folic acid offered significant benefits.
For the study, researchers followed 45,300 Israeli children from birth through January 26, 2015, according to ABC News. The team studied survey data on mothers who became pregnant between January 1, 2003 and December 31, 2007, including whether their doctors had prescribed the women multivitamin or folic acid supplements. The study determined that children born to women who were prescribed multivitamins or folic acid showed a 73 percent lower risk of an autism diagnosis than children whose mothers didn’t take a supplement, according to ABC News.
The study findings were published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association Psychiatry.
While the new findings were consistent with results from an earlier study of autism and vitamin intake in Swedish mothers, the Israeli study offered new evidence on the benefits of supplementing long before conception. The researchers found that mothers who took prenatal vitamins up to two years before pregnancy also saw a much lower risk of their child developing autism, according to the JAMA report. But while the team called for more studies on the possible connection between vitamin deficiency and autism — especially considering the small sample of children with autism in their research population — the findings appeared to offer even more reason for women to take a daily prenatal, even if they aren’t planning a pregnancy.
Doctors have long recommended that all women who might become pregnant take a daily prenatal vitamin as a way to guard against potential birth defects. Research has associated not getting enough folic acid, for example, with an increased risk of neural tube defects like spina bifida, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The conventional wisdom is that the critical window for physical development happens in the early weeks of pregnancy, before many women even realize they’re pregnant.
The new study is part of a growing body of evidence that maternal nutrition could play a role in certain developmental disorders, as well. And given how little consensus there is on the clear causes of autism, the idea that prenatal nutrition could play such a huge factor is important, health experts told ABC News. Dr. Jennifer Ashton, who was not involved in the study, told the outlet that the study raised “interesting questions” for researchers.
At this time, general consensus is that there is not one singular cause of autism, but more likely multiple causative factors, however, these findings do reflect a positive association with maternal preconception and prenatal intake of folic acid/prenatal vitamins and a reduced risk of having a baby with autism. While we need to show biologic causation to definitively reinforce this link, these findings serve as a reminder of the importance of preconception and prenatal nutrition.
And while the idea that diet could play a role isn’t new, outside researchers cautioned against parents (or those looking to become parents) taking a prenatal solely for autism prevention. In a Chicago Tribune interview on the Swedish study, lead researcher Elizabeth DeVilbiss said the studies on the link between vitamin intake and autism risk should be considered fodder for an important conversation between women and their doctors.
It's possible that women who take a multivitamin during pregnancy might engage in other healthy behaviors that account for the reduced autism risk. Ideally, a trial that randomly assigns women to multivitamins or no supplements could pin down whether vitamins really reduce autism risk.
The demand for more reliable information on the underlying causes and risk factors for autism has never been higher, but it’s important to note that an ASD diagnosis is far from fatal. The disorder affects social, communication, and behavioral functioning in different ways, ranging from very mild to severe, according to the Autism Spectrum Disorder Foundation. It can be incredibly debilitating in extreme cases, but for many people with ASD, the associated stigma — how we talk about autism and autism risk — can be even more problematic.
The further danger, Ashton told ABC News, is that research like this latest study could be used as a way to blame mothers who have children with autism. “Obviously there are plenty of mothers who did consume adequate preconception and prenatal folic acid, and had an offspring with autism anyway," she said.
So, early research on vitamin deficiency and autism risk may look promising in some ways, but there are even more questions left for researchers to explore. While national data suggests that the prevalence of autism has reached a plateau in the last three years, understanding the underlying causes for the disorder remains a key goal for health experts, according to the CDC website. In the interim, this latest study points to even more reason to take a daily vitamin (whether or not you’re considering pregnancy today) as a kind of added insurance against a host of pregnancy and developmental issues.
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