This week, researchers reported a strong association between the metabolic conditions that can occur during pregnancy — such as diabetes, obesity and hypertension — and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) as well as developmental delays.
The study will be published in the May 2012 issue of Pediatrics.
Researchers found that obese mothers had 1.6 times the chance of having a child with autism. They were also more than twice as likely to have a child with another developmental disorder.
Mothers with diabetes were 2.3 times more likely to have a child with developmental delays.
Children of mothers with diabetes scored lower on language and communication tests compared to children of mothers without metabolic conditions.
Study authors conclude that the uptick in obesity and diabetes may be directly associated with neurodevelopment problems in children.
That raises serious public health concerns.
Developmental pediatrician Raun Melmed, MD, co-founder and medical director of the Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center (SAARC) in Phoenix, says that scientists are just beginning to try to identify the environmental factors that may play a role in whether or not a child will have autism.
“We are still in the process of discovery,” says Melmed, an AzAAP member and director of the Melmed Center. “This is relatively early on in the field in trying to figure out what the underlying causes are.”
Melmed says that most experts agree that there has to be a genetic disposition for autistic disorders, and that genes play a significant role on whether a child will develop the disorder.
Last week, teams of researchers reported in the New York Times that they’ve now identified several gene mutations that they agree sharply increase the chances that a child will develop autism. Further evidence shows that that the risk seems to increase with the age of the parents, particularly in fathers over the age of 35.
Melmed, who is also an adjunct senior researcher at TGen, a not-for-profit biomedical research institute in Phoenix, is working on research that involves gene expression in autism.
TGen is a part of the Autism Genome Project (AGP), a consortium that helps bring together researchers from research centers in the U.S., Europe, and Canada. The AGP was initiated by Autism Speaks and is funded by international, private and public partners.
As a research facility as well as a resource center, SAARC teams also are working on pharmaceutical answers to help with treatment, such as how medication can change the ability of people to communicate.
All of the latest research and discovery is promising for the future, says Melmed, but “we also have to face facts that there are people facing this today.”
Melmed says that means continuing early intervention and treatment with evidenced-based therapies, identifying children with Asperger’s syndrome earlier, as well as growing vocational, residential and recreational opportunities throughout the life span of those with ASD.