The news on autism has been sobering lately, with the CDC's recent report that the number of kids on the spectrum has increased by 78 percent compared to a decade ago. One in 88 American children are now estimated to have some form of autism spectrum disorder, and while the jump in numbers is at least partially attributed to better diagnosis, broader diagnosis, and better awareness—the fact remains that no one really knows what causes autism.
While scientists continue to examine whether or not the actual prevalence of autism has increased, new research implies that there's one factor that has an effect on the severity of an autistic child's symptoms.
According to a study conducted by Tammy Movsas of Michigan State University's Department of Epidemiology, autistic children who are born several weeks early or several weeks late tend to have more severe symptoms. Additionally, autistic children who were born either preterm or post-term are more likely to self-injure themselves, compared with autistic children born on time.
The study revealed there are many different manifestations of the autism spectrum disorder, which isn't exactly surprising news—but the fact that the length of a mother's pregnancy seems to be tied to symptoms may provide important clues towards unraveling the mystery of autism.
Movsas's research is one of the first studies to look at the severity of the disorder among autistic children who were born early, on time, and late:
We think about autism being caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. With preterm and post-term babies, there is something underlying that is altering the genetic expression of autism. The outside environment in which a preterm baby continues to mature is very different than the environment that the baby would have experienced in utero. This change in environment may be part of the reason why there is a difference in autistic severity in this set of infants.
No one typically has a baby several weeks early or late on purpose, but it's possible that this new information will eventually help doctors figure out if there's anything that can be done during pregnancy to prevent or alleviate autism symptoms. Plus, it's always good news to hear that more research is being invested into what some are calling a public health emergency. Every piece of the puzzle is progress in understanding this disorder that affects so many kids—roughly 1 million children and teens in the U.S. alone.
In your own personal experience, have you observed any link between pregnancy length and autism symptoms?
Image via Flickr/DavidSalafia