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A Grandmotherly Clue in One Family’s Autism Mystery

Guest post by Jill Escher, founder of the Escher Fund for Autism

I have two kids with autism. My son and daughter are sweet, healthy and beautiful. They’re also nonverbal and severely disabled. They will both need lifelong 24/7 supervision, protection and care.

My kids’ brain connections seemed askew from the start. It was clear that they simply weren’t wired to imitate, learn and sponge in the world in the way I saw typically developing kids do every day.

But why? What oddity within them could have derailed the complex process of normal, robust brain development?

Neither my husband nor I have any family history of mental or developmental disabilities. My conceptions, pregnancies and deliveries seemed entirely normal. Genetic testing of our children revealed no known genetic abnormalities.

Growing up in West Los Angeles, I had never heard of autism or anything resembling the condition. Now I see it everywhere. Not only under our own roof, but also throughout our neighborhood. Regularly, I hear how the immense needs of these children are overwhelming our schools.

After a series of unexpected events, I recently obtained information that seems to provide a clue to one possible answer to my questions.

After some probing on my part, I received copies of the medical records surrounding my mother’s pregnancy with me in 1965. In particular, I got a glimpse of the medications she was taking. While in the womb, I was heavily exposed to several powerful drugs called synthetic steroid hormones. By design, these medicines mimic or enhance the effects of natural hormones.

My mother’s doctors administered these synthetic hormones—at least two types of progestins, two types of estrogens and a corticosteroid—in the belief that they could help prevent miscarriage. Medicating pregnant moms was fairly standard in the 1950s and 60s and even into the 1970s. Besides synthetic hormones, many women received sedatives, anti-nausea medications, amphetamines, prescription pain relievers and more.

So what does my mother’s medication history have to do with my children’s autism?

Researchers now know that pharmaceuticals and other chemical exposures during pregnancy can produce effects that cross multiple generations. We know, for example, that the medications my mother took could have affected at least three generations: my mom; me in her womb; and the developing germ cells that would become my eggs. Two of those eggs, of course, contributed their genetic programming to the development of my children.

Thanks to the relatively new science of epigenetics, we know that our development is determined by more than genes, or DNA. Normal development also relies on our genes being turned on and off at just the right time. This is done by molecular “epigenetic” switches surrounding each gene.

Together with Autism Speaks, the Escher Fund for Autism and the UC Davis MIND Institute recently sponsored a symposium on the Epigenetics of Autism. During the scientific sessions, we learned of research showing how epigenetic programming is vulnerable to chemical and pharmaceutical interference. The resulting effects can be especially profound if the exposure occurs during prenatal development. Brain development, in particular, appears to be strongly driven by epigenetic control.

Science is now embracing the idea that epigenetics may be playing a role in the rapidly rising rates of autism. More than any other organization, Autism Speaks has been leading and supporting research into this important area of gene-environment interaction. It is doing so through its sponsorship of both symposia and research projects.

I know I speak for many of us when I express immense gratitude to Autism Speaks and its science staff for taking a leadership position in this regard. It takes courage to overcome old scientific dogma to open up promising new areas of research.

If medicines taken during pregnancy can indeed affect the development of future grandchildren, the implications are profound. We must ask these difficult questions and invest in finding the answers.

Editor’s note: You can explore Autism Speaks-funded research on the epigenetics of autism and all the research Autism Speaks is funding using this website’s Grant Search.


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The Autism Speaks blog features opinions from people throughout the autism community. Each blog represents the point of view of the author and does not necessarily reflect Autism Speaks' beliefs or point of view.