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For years, researchers have pondered the apparent rise in numbers of children diagnosed along the spectrum of autism disorders.  At the same time, the rate of diabetes among adults has risen.  A new study suggests an association between a pregnant woman with maternal diabetes and the risk of autism in her baby.

The study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), looked at retrospective data from children (all singletons) born at Kaiser Permanente facilities in Southern California between 1995 and 2012.  Overall, the study evaluated data of 419,425 children born between 28 and 44 weeks gestation. Study authors tracked medical data on the children from the age of one.

Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) impact communication and behavior. The National Institute of Mental Health, describes factors of conditions on the autism spectrum that include:

  • ASD usually become apparent between the ages of zero and two, but can be diagnosed at any time point during a lifetime.
  • ASD conditions may include difficulty interacting, reciprocating, or understanding the social and emotional communications of others.
  • Development difficulties associated with ASD can impact interpersonal function at school, work, or in life.
  • ASD occurs across all levels of socio-economic and racial backgrounds.

Is There A Link Between Maternal Diabetes And ASD?

Diabetes during pregnancy increases the risk of a child being diagnosed with ASD.  There are three types of diabetes:

  • Type 1 diabetes occurs when the immune system attacks and destroys the cells in your body that produce insulin. In order to remain healthy, individuals with Type 1 diabetes must take insulin every day.  Type 1 is usually diagnosed in childhood or in young adulthood.
  • Type 2 diabetes is a condition that develops as your body loses its ability to produce or utilize insulin. The most common form of diabetes, Type 2, is more likely to affect adults who are middle-aged or older.
  • During pregnancy, you may be diagnosed with gestational diabetes. Oftentimes, this form of diabetes resolves with the birth of your child, but you are at increased risk with each additional pregnancy.  Women diagnosed with gestational diabetes are at higher risk for developing Type 2 diabetes later in life.

This study found that risk of ASD was higher for women with any form of diabetes.  Of the study group, 5,800 children were eventually diagnosed with ASD.  Study authors found that approximately four percent of those diagnosed had a mother with Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes that was diagnosed within 26 weeks of pregnancy.  About three percent of children diagnosed with ASD had mothers who developed gestational diabetes that was diagnosed within 26 weeks of pregnancy.

The research specifically does not state that maternal diabetes causes ASD.  Further research is needed to explore the association between ASD and diabetes which may involve hereditary, immune, or other factors at the root of both conditions.

If you have diabetes, be sure to speak with your physician if you plan to become pregnant to ensure your condition is controlled.  If you are not aware that you have diabetes, be sure you are screened regularly throughout your pregnancy to rule out or treat gestational diabetes.

For parents of children born to moms with a form of diabetes, study author Anny Xiang said, “screening for autism risk for children born to mothers with type 1, type 2 and gestational diabetes diagnosed early during pregnancy may be warranted for early intervention.”

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