When it comes time to head to the delivery room, the first thing on your mind hopefully isn’t what can go wrong, but instead anticipating the moment you’ll finally lock eyes with the child you or your partner have been carrying for nine months.
If there is a complication during or shortly before birth, you hope your doctor team has everything covered. But what does it mean for the future health and development of baby?
Complications during birth can be fatal, cause infant brain damage or more — lead to diagnoses of complex development disorders, like autism.
A new study published in the American Journal of Perinatology examines the link between autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and perinatal complications — those occurring five months before and one month after birth — and found that children with autism were more likely to be exposed to such complications. The risk increased when complications occurred both during pregnancy and during labor.
Researchers found that of 6,000 children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, nearly 40 percent experienced complications shortly before or during birth, including oxygen deprivation and preeclampsia, a serious pregnancy condition characterized by high blood pressure.
While those thoughts are scary, the good news is birth and pregnancy complications may help doctors determine more quickly if baby has ASD — and how to get the help he or she needs sooner.
Before we get started with how to properly screen for autism, it’s best to know what exactly it is. Autism spectrum disorder and autism are general terms for brain development disorders, in which a child has difficulty communicating and forming relationships and develops repetitive, rigid behavior patterns.
Developmental disabilities overall are incredibly common, with 1 in 6 children in the U.S. having some form of mild or serious disability, ranging from speech impairments to cerebral palsy and autism. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in 68 children in the U.S. have been diagnosed with autism. Autism is about 4.5 times more common in boys than in girls, and also tends to occur more often in people who have certain genetic or chromosomal conditions, such as Down syndrome.
Children born to older parents also are at a higher risk for having ASD, along with a small percentage of children born prematurely or at low birth weight.
Risks and Complications
While the CDC says 12 to 13 percent of ASD cases are linked to being born too early, too small, and/or by Cesarean delivery, pregnancy or birth complications could be behind any of those.
In the latest study, birth asphyxia and preeclampsia were two factors that saw higher chances of being diagnosed with autism. Preeclampsia is the most common pregnancy complication, and can be fatal to both mother and baby. Restricted blood flow to the placenta can deprive the baby of needed oxygen and nutrients, and cause premature birth and delay baby’s development. See how it’s all tying together?
While some complications are unavoidable, other pregnancy tips out there can be confusing. Taking care of your body while pregnant is a no brainer, but what we think is best for us also can be dangerous or lead to problems, such as an autism diagnosis — like taking too much folate or B12 through prenatal vitamins.
Diagnosing a Problem
Diagnosing autism isn’t easy, and the push to get screenings done sooner is a big issue in the autism community.
Although parents may notice a developmental problem before their child’s first birthday, according to the CDC, diagnoses for ASD typically don’t happen until age 4. However, progress has been made in identifying children with autism at a younger age. In 2002, the median age for the earliest comprehensive developmental evaluation was 2 years and 8 months, while it decreased to 2 years and 3 months by 2006.
What parents should do if they think their child may have ASD — particularly if they’ve experienced any perinatal complications — is to get a developmental screening, which is a short test to determine if children are learning basic skills when they should. Any delays in how the child speaks, moves, talks or behaves could be a sign of a problem, and a comprehensive diagnostic evaluation would follow.
The CDC recommends all children be screened during regular well-child doctor visits at 9 months, 18 months and 24 or 30 months. Additional screening may be needed, especially those with higher risk due to preterm birth, low birth weight or having a sibling with ASD.