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Study suggests new risk factor for autism

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In a study published in JAMA Psychiatry last Wednesday, researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health examined medical records from 50,000 women enrolled in the Nurses’ Health Study II and found that those who experienced the most physical, emotional, or sexual abuse as children were 60 percent more likely to have a child with autism — 1.8 percent of children born to women reporting the highest amount of abuse had autism compared with 0.7 percent of those born to women who said they were never screamed at, hit, or sexually abused as children.

“One in four women in our study fell into that top group of women who suffered the most abuse, which is a lot of people,” said Dr. Andrea Roberts, a research associate at the Harvard School of Public Health. The study doesn’t prove that abuse in childhood leads to more autism but merely makes the association. “Perhaps abuse has lasting effects on a women’s immune system or her stress response system that might be increasing their child’s risk in utero,” Roberts said.

She recommends exercise and meditation to help manage stress, which is good advice for all pregnant women. Professional counseling may also be beneficial to help women come to terms with their past abuse.

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