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Study Suggests Higher Autism Risk for Children of Mothers with Lupus

Findings add to evidence that inflammation during pregnancy predisposes to autism spectrum disorder
October 26, 2013

A new study suggests that children born to mothers with lupus have twice the average risk of developing autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The findings, by researchers at Montreal’s McGill University, will be presented this week at the annual meeting of the American College of Rheumatology in San Diego.

Lupus is a chronic inflammatory disease that affects an estimated 1.5 million Americans, 90 percent of them women. It typically develops during a woman’s twenties or thirties. The McGill study is the first to look at autism risk in their children.

“These findings are consistent with what we know about the immune system’s role in the development of ASD,” comments Alycia Halladay, Autism Speaks senior director for environmental and clinical sciences. “But caution is needed in interpreting what appears to be a small increased risk.”

The McGill researchers used a large Canadian health registry of children born to women with lupus between 1989 and 2009. The team compared the frequency of autism diagnoses among 719 children born to 509 mothers with lupus to that of 8,493 children of 5,824 women without the disease. The mothers’ average age was just over 30 years, and the average time of follow up for their children was just over nine years.

Analysis showed that 1.4 percent of children born to mothers with lupus developed autism. This compared to 0.6 percent of those born to mothers without the disease.

The difference in risk is in line with a growing body of studies suggesting that maternal inflammation during pregnancy is an important risk factor for autism, Dr. Halladay notes. (Read more about these studies here.) However, the increased risk seen in this study modest, she emphasizes. More than 98 percent of the children born to the women with lupus did not develop autism.  

Autism Speaks is funding a number of studies into the immune system’s involvement in the development of ASD - and the potential to intervene for prevention or treatment.

You can explore these and all the research Autism Speaks is funding using this website’s Grant Search.