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The Cause of Autism May Not Be Unknown

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Today, the often-repeated refrain is, “The cause of autism is unknown.”  Yet, even though most so-called autism experts generally admit that the cause of autism has not been proven, they generally offer only non-environmental theories.

Bernard, et al., found in a 2001 article in Medical Hypotheses that mercury in certain vaccines caused autism. Cannell, also in Medical Hypotheses (2007), theorized that autistic children suffered from a lack of Vitamin D. Giulivi, et al., in a 2010 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, blamed autism on something called “mitochondrial dysfunction”–the brains inability to produce energy.

A 2011 study by Ozonoff in Pediatrics which looked at more than 600 cases of autism and found that if a child has the disorder, a younger sibling has a 19 percent chance of also having it, concluded that autism is genetic. However, this statistic does not prove genetics as the cause, since it could also explain family parenting patterns.

While none of these theories has been validated, much research has meanwhile been done with mothers who suffer from postpartum depression or major depression. A study by Laura Murray in the Journal of child Psychology and Psychiatry in 1992 showed that children of severely depressed mothers develop severe cognitive and relationship problems by 18 months (the time when autistic symptoms begin appearing). Salvanos, et al. studied 291 mothers and infants and found a strong link between postpartum depression and autistic traits. The article appeared in European Psychiatry (2009).

Other researchers, J. Hallmayer et al., stated succinctly what some have intimated. “We have to look at both sides of the coin.” His study in the Archives of General Psychiatry provided scientific evidence that both genetics and the environment produce autism. Using state records, the researchers, who were all at Stanford University, identified 192 pairs of twins in which at least one of the two had some form of autism. Among these sets, there were 54 pairs of identical and 138 pairs of fraternal twins.

What they found was that the genes twins share can increase the risk of getting autism by about 38%, but the environment that twins share may increase the risk an estimated 58%. The environmental risk is nearly twice that of genetics.

Evidence is accumulating that maternal depression leads to severe developmental problems in children. A study by the Kennedy Krieger Institute released on their website in 2008 found that 46% of mothers of autistic children reported being depressed following pregnancy. Ainsworth, in her famous study of attachment (Ainsworth, et al., 1978), found that children could develop an avoidant attachment, with symptoms very like the symptoms of autism, when they had a mother who was avoidant toward them as infants.

The increasing number of such studies seems to indicate that there is a relationship between a mother’s depression (and hence neglect) and a child’s subsequent development. The developmental defects brought about by postpartum depression are similar to those of autism. It therefore seems to follow that there is a relation between postpartum depression and autism.
A study by the Kennedy Krieger Institute released in 2008 found that 46% of mothers of autistic children reported being depressed following pregnancy. The institute concluded that mood disorders occur more frequently in family members of individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) than in the general population. The study also suggested associations between maternal mood disorder history patterns and specific ASD phenotypes. The study looked at the relationship between maternal mood disorders and child autism spectrum disorders in 998 mother-child dyads that participated in a national online autism registry and database. The odds of an Asperger disorder versus autistic disorder diagnosis were higher among children whose mothers had a lifetime history of bipolar disorder or depression. Further, maternal mood disorder onset before first pregnancy was associated with higher odds of an autism diagnosis among this sample of children with ASD. These data suggest that differences in maternal mood disorder history may be associated with ASD phenotype in the offspring of such individuals.

Some would say that even if a mother has postpartum depression for a month or two, any damage done to the baby can be overcome later on. This is true, early damage can be overcome. However we are learning how crucial those first weeks and months of life are–and indeed, how crucial the prenatal period is, for development. Harm done then can affect a person’s personality and health the rest of his or her life if it is not caught in time.

Even if we don’t buy into this theory completely, we can still take precautionary measures. Common sense tells us a mother suffering from severe depression will not be able to provide the attention a newborn needs.

Therefore, if a mother has postpartum depression and can’t care for her baby, perhaps–for the sake of the child–someone else such as the husband or aunt or grandmother should step in.

The Cause of Autism May Not Be Unknown

Gerald Schoenewolf, Ph.D.

Gerald Schoenewolf, Ph.D. is a licensed psychoanalyst in New York and has been practicing for over 37 years. He works with adults, couples, families, adolescents, and children. He has graduated from three psychotherapy institutes and received a Certificate in Psychoanalysis from the Washington Square Institute in 1981. He has been an Adjunct Assistant Professor of psychology at the Borough of Manhattan Community College since 2002 and has authored thirteen books on psychotherapy and psychoanalysis as well as four novels and a book of poems and drawings. More recently he wrote 20 screenplays (winning four first-place awards at festivals) and produced and directed two feature films.

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APA Reference
Schoenewolf, G. (2016). The Cause of Autism May Not Be Unknown. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 24, 2019, from


Last updated: 28 Dec 2016
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