A study published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry found a transgenerational contributor to the spectrum of autism disorders. This study was the first of its kind to examine the possible relationship between a mother’s life experiences with abuse and the effects it could have on their children. The study found that women who were abused before the age of 12 were far more likely to have a child diagnosed with autism, as compared to women who weren’t abused.
The study followed more than 50,000 women who were asked whether or not they had experienced any abuse in their childhood. The study asked the women to describe their abuse and to define it as physical, sexual, or emotional abuse. The abuse ranged from being hit hard enough to leave a bruise to being insulted by their caregivers. These women were then polled about their own children and whether or not they had an autism spectrum disorder. The researchers adjusted the results to account for any women who had reported pregnancy related factors that may have influenced their child’s condition like preeclampsia or diabetes.
The women who reported sexual, emotional, or even physical abuse were more likely to have an autistic child. The study reports that women who experience severe abuse are far more likely to have a child with autism and those who encountered serious mistreatment were 60% more likely. The researchers also found that some women who had experienced abuse were possibly engaging in dangerous behaviors like smoking, drinking, being overweight, or using drugs. However, once these factors were considered, the dangerous activities only accounted for 7% of the autism cases. This led researchers to speculate about how a woman’s body responds to serious abuse.
Childhood abuse can make someone feel like they are chronically stressed and the constant release of stress-related hormones can affect a child’s development while inside the woman’s body. Some researchers feel that parents who abuse their children often suffer from some form of mental illness that can be passed genetically to their children. Mental illness and autism share similar risk factors and can be heavily influenced by a family’s history of mental illness. Some researchers feel that a grandparent’s history of mental illness can be a strong indicator that a child or grandchild may suffer from a mental illness in their lifetime.
The results of these studies present society with a harsh reality that childhood abuse can have lasting effects on the person who experiences it and may also reach across generations. As more evidence comes to light, a rise in autism may cause for more urgency to prevent child abuse. Such interventions might prove to be beneficial for entire generations of families.