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Environmental Factors in Autism Initiative

The role of environmental factors in the development of autism is a crucial area of study. We know that genetics strongly influence the risk for developing autism spectrum disorder (ASD). However, genetics alone do not account for all instances of autism. For good reason, the increasing prevalence of autism has generated great interest in the potential involvement of toxins in our environment. For example, prenatal exposure to the chemicals thalidomide and valproic acid has been linked to increased risk of autism.

It's important to understand that the study of environmental risk factors includes much more than exposure to chemicals. Scientists use the term "environmental" to refer to influences other than changes in a gene’s DNA. Autism risk factors, for example, appear to include such influences as parental age at conception, maternal nutrition, infection during pregnancy and prematurity.

Autism Speaks Environmental Factors in Autism Initiative targets research that can advance our understanding of the environmental influences that increase – or decrease – autism risk. None of these influences appears to “cause” or “prevent” autism by themselves. Rather they appear to influence risk in those genetically predisposed to the disorder.

Environmental Research Supported by Autism Speaks
Autism Speaks remains strongly committed to advancing the understanding of both genetic and environmental risk factors for ASD. One important area of research concerns how environmental influences interact with genetic susceptibility. Such research is crucial for guiding prevention and improving diagnosis and treatment. 

To date, Autism Speaks has released two requests for applications (RFAs) to support research on environmental risk factors. The first, in 2008, supported 12 studies. Some delved into the role of the immune system and epigenetics, the study of factors that control gene activity. Others advanced animal models for the study of chemicals newly suspected of increasing autism risk.

Autism Speaks released its second environmental RFA in 2012. It focuses on environmental epidemiology studies and gene-environment interactions. Autism Speaks, in collaboration with National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, formed the Environmental Epidemiology of Autism Research Network (EEARN). The goal of EEARN is to support projects that use epidemiological information to yield new insights into factors that affect autism risk. Read more about EEARN here and in this recent blog post

Also in 2008, Autism Speaks announced a groundbreaking collaboration between two Autism Centers of Excellence. This collaboration is expanding the collection of genetic and environmental information in two large groups of families affected by autism. Autism Speaks is supporting the collection of information on environmental exposures in mothers and children for all participants in both studies. (Read more about this project here.)

Please also see our Environmental Grants overview page and for information on applying for an Autism Speaks research grant, please visit our Open Grants page.

For more information and perspective,,,,
Please see these related news stories and blogs by our science staff and affiliated researchers:

Risk vs Cause

Deeper Understanding of Link between Chemical Pollutants and Autism

Pregnancy, Fever and Autism 


Further Evidence that Valproate during Pregnancy Increases Autism Risk

Autism, Old Grandpas and Mom's Childhood

Evidence that Folic Acid Reduces Autism Risk

More about Prenatal Folic Acid and Autism

Prenatal Inflammation Linked to Autism Risk

Autism Speaks Announces Symposium on Environmental Epigenetics

* Autism-Pitocin Connection?

* I see more headlines about autism risk and antidepressants in pregnancy. What am I supposed to do?

Can my taking medication during pregnancy cause autism in my baby?

* New Research on PCBs and Autism

Breastfeeding and Autism Risk

Do our Brains Need Protecting from the Modern World?

Autism Speaks Announces Symposium on Environmental Epigenetics

Father’s Age Linked to Increased Genetic Mutations in Children

New Evidence Links Immune Irregularities to Autism

Special Issue Highlights Environmental Toxins and Autism

Mom’s Age and Autism Risk

Autism Researchers Discover ‘Epigenetic’ Changes

Air Pollution and Autism Risk

Pesticide Exposure and Risk of Autism

Perspective on Maternal Obesity & Autism

Avoiding Environmental Hazards During Pregnancy

IMFAR Update on Environmental Epidemiology & Autism

A Geneticist Explores a Pollutant's Effects

What’s New in Environmental Research?

Understanding Sex Differences in Autism