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Autism Spectrum Disorders Health Center

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Birth Complications Linked to Autism

Study: Factors Related to Oxygen Deprivation, Fetal Growth May Be Associated With Autism
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

July 11, 2011  -- Several problems that crop up during labor and shortly after birth appear to increase a child’s risk for developing autism, a new study shows.

The study comes on the heels of new evidence suggesting that environmental and developmental exposures may play a greater role in the development of autism than previously believed. For decades, doctors thought genes accounted for as much as 90% of all autism risk.

The study, a review of 40 studies published before April 2007, looked at a host of circumstances that may affect babies during labor and delivery. It found 16 circumstances that appear to be tied to a significantly increased risk that a child would develop autism later in life.

Researchers note that many of these complications tend to occur together in difficult or high-risk deliveries, making it difficult to finger a single suspect.

But broadly, researchers note, they seem to be related to oxygen deprivation and growth retardation.

“Reduced oxygen supply, during labor, during delivery, during the prenatal period, during early infancy, could influence autism risk,” says study researcher Hannah Gardener, ScD, an epidemiologist at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine. “We can’t say that definitely from our study, but that certainly is one possibility.”

Complications Related to Autism

Neonatal anemia, a condition in which the body doesn’t have enough oxygen-carrying red blood cells, for example, was associated with nearly eight times the risk a child would develop autism later in life.

Meconium aspiration, which can occur when a fetus that’s under stress and not getting enough oxygen inhales waste products inside the womb, was linked to a sevenfold increase in the likelihood that a child would later develop autism. Birth injury or trauma increased autism risk fivefold.

Babies with blood types incompatible with their mother’s had nearly four times the risk.

Very low birth weight infants, or infants weighing less than 3.3 pounds at birth, faced triple the risk.

Maternal hemorrhage more than doubled the odds.

Other factors tied to increased autism risk, though to a lesser degree, included congenital malformations, breech and other kinds of abnormal birth positions, multiple birth, a low 5-minute Apgar score, weighing less than 5.5 pounds at birth, umbilical cord complications, fetal distress, being small for gestational age.

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