Autism prevention is difficult, because the exact causes of autism are not known. Avoiding alcohol and medications during pregnancy may help.
Because the causes of autism are not well-understood, there is no known way to prevent autism spectrum disorders. While many researchers are actively working to understand what causes autism, to find ways to prevent it, this is currently no sure way to prevent your child from having autism.
However, researchers have a few clues about what causes autism, and there are a few things you can do that may reduce the risk that your child will be born with an autism spectrum disorder. These include:
• Being immunized against rubella
• Avoiding drinking alcohol during pregnancy
• Avoiding taking medications during pregnancy unless absolutely necessary
• Early diagnosis and treatment of metabolic disorders
• Ensure adequate nutrition throughout your pregnancy
Rubella, also known as German measles, is a disease that can be prevented with the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine. While the disease is usually mild in adults, it can cause severe problems in the baby if a pregnant mother is infected with rubella. These problems include hearing loss as well as autism. This is preventable with vaccination.
There is a link between maternal consumption of alcohol during pregnancy and the later development of autism in the child. Alcohol may affect the development of certain brain structures, which can then lead to autism. While more research is needed to confirm this link, if you are concerned about having a child with autism, it may be wise to avoid drinking alcoholic beverages.
Similarly, there is a link between certain medications taken during pregnancy and the child’s later risk of autism. In particular, certain antiseizure medications are associated with autism. If the mother has severe epilepsy, the risk from the medications may be less than the risk of her having seizures while pregnant. You should talk with your doctor about the risks and benefits of these medications.
Because some metabolic disorders can cause autism-like symptoms, it’s important to get your child screened and treated as early as possible. There is a standard metabolic panel that’s recommended for all newborns; a small spot of the baby’s blood is tested for several genetic disorders, including phenylketonuria (PKU). These can be treated with a special diet.
Similarly, a mother with PKU or other metabolic disorders needs to follow her diet very strictly during pregnancy. If the mother’s PKU is not well-controlled during pregnancy, the child may develop autism-like symptoms that will not be reversible later.
Lastly, because researchers aren’t exactly sure what causes autism, if you’re concerned about autism, then you should do your best to have the healthiest possible pregnancy. Eat a healthy diet and take your recommended vitamins, because nutritional deficiencies could contribute to autism (although this is not proven by research at this point). Go to all of your regular prenatal checkups, so that any problems with the pregnancy can be detected and treated as early as possible.
While no specific link between environmental chemicals (such as pesticides and fertilizers) and autism has been shown, it is prudent to avoid exposure to these chemicals as much as possible during pregnancy, as their safety has not been established in most cases. For example, avoid walking barefoot on your lawn right after it’s been fertilized.
Mayo Clinic Staff. “Autism spectrum disorder: Prevention.” Mayo Clinic website (2014). http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/autism-spectrum-disorder/basics/prevention/con-20021148
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD): Facts About ASD.” CDC website (2015). http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/facts.html
National Institutes of Health. “Autism Spectrum Disorder.” MedlinePlus (2015). http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/autismspectrumdisorder.html