With the staggering statistic that 1 in 88 children in the United States is now diagnosed with Autism, it’s no great surprise that a considerable chunk of research is devoted to finding out the cause. And just to be clear, it’s a cause I wholeheartedly support. The results of these studies have previously told us that Autism may be the result of the environment, it may be genetic, and the most recent study published last week in JAMA Pediatrics indicates that there’s a potential link between having labor induced or augmented and the future development of autism. I’m a bit skeptical, to say the least.
Now, the researchers are clear that they did not find any kind of causation, just a link. There’s no scientific evidence that the use of Oxytocin or other medications causes autism any more than there is evidence that the increased sale of organic food is causing the rise in Autism. Right now there is a correlation. A very, very loose one.
The recent study looked at birth records and school records (where Autism diagnoses are listed) to see if there was any increased rate of autism among those children whose labors had been induced or accelerated. The study did control for “socioeconomic status, maternal health, pregnancy-related events and conditions, and birth year” all of which sound like a lot, but they study did not control for other important factors like having a sibling or other family member with Autism, head circumference, weight at birth or duration of pregnancy, all of which have also been linked to the development of Autism.
And the data itself is not overwhelming either. As pointed out in a great article on Forbes.com, the study found that having labor induced resulted only in a 13% increase in the likelihood of developing Autism. Having labor augmented resulted in a 15% increase and having labor both induced and augmented resulted in a 23% increase. This does not mean that 23% of babies who had their labor induced and augmented will develop Autism, simply that their data showed that kids whose labors were induced and augmented were 23% more likely to have Autism.
Interestingly, the same study found that having a mother with a college degree results in a 30-33% increased likelihood of developing Autism, which seems newsworthy to me, if a 23% increase is worth the hullabaloo this is getting. I think we can all agree that attending college is not likely the actual cause of developing Autism, but it’s a great reminder of how difficult it is to say what is “causing” something and what is more likely an interesting coincidence. And right now, there’s just no way to know if the circumstances surrounding labor and delivery are really a true factor in Autism or whether it’s an incidental finding.
As a mother, I find the rates of Autism terrifying and I understand that we all want to know the cause. It’s not something that any mother would wish for her children and my heart goes out to all those impacted by this condition. But I think allowing the results of inconclusive and underwhelming studies direct the medical care of mothers during pregnancy, delivery or the care of a child in the first several years of life is not the answer either. We clearly need more research to understand how we can reduce the rates of Autism, and we need to be careful not to let sensational headlines potentially risk the health of pregnant mothers and infants before we’ve truly found the cause we’re looking for.