In The Politics of Autism, I discuss various ideas about what causes the condition. Here is just a partial list of correlates, risk factors, and possible causes that have been the subject of serious studies:
- Air pollution and proximity to freeways;
- Maternal thyroid issues;
- Autoimmune disorders;
- Induced labor;
- Preterm birth;
- Birth by cesarean section;
- Maternal and paternal obesity;
- Maternal diabetes;
- Maternal and paternal age;
- Maternal post-traumatic stress disorder;
- Smoking during pregnancy;
- Antidepressant use during pregnancy;
Women with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) are more likely than other women to have an autistic child, according to an analysis of NHS data carried out by a team at Cambridge University's Autism Research Centre. The research is published today in the journal Translational Psychiatry.
PCOS affects about one in ten women and is caused by elevated levels of the hormone testosterone. It is associated with fluid-filled sacs (called follicles) in the ovaries, and with symptoms such as delayed onset of puberty, irregular menstrual cycles, and excess bodily hair.
Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, Director of the Autism Research Centre, who supervised the research, said: "This new research is helping us understand the effects of testosterone on the developing fetal brain, and on the child's later behaviour and mind. These hormonal effects are not necessarily independent of genetic factors, as a mother or her baby may have higher levels of the hormone for genetic reasons, and testosterone can affect how genes function."
Dr Carrie Allison who co-supervised the research, said: "We need to think about the practical steps we can put in place to support women with PCOS as they go through their pregnancies. The likelihood is statistically significant but nevertheless still small, in that most women with PCOS won't have a child with autism, but we want to be transparent with this new information."
Dr Rupert Payne from the University of Bristol Centre for Academic Primary Care, a GP and the expert on the team in using GP health record data for this type of research, said: "Autism can have a significant impact on a person's wellbeing, and on their parents, and many autistic people have significant health, social care and educational special needs. This is an important step in trying to understand what causes autism. It is also an excellent example of the value of using anonymous routine healthcare data to answer vital medical research questions."