Can You Protect Your Child from Autism?

It's Not Easy to Reduce the Risk of Autism; Here's Why

Boy in Bubble Wrap
Boy in Bubble WRap. Getty Images

Despite popular blogs and articles to the contrary, it is pretty much impossible to protect your child from developing autism.  Yes, you can avoid some risk factors (described below), but since autism is not communicable, and is only sometimes directly inherited, there are no simple "wash your hands" type tools for keeping autism at bay.

Known Risk Factors for Autism

There are a few known risk factors for autism:

  • Autism can occur if a mother-to-be is on certain medications while pregnant.  Depakote, also called Valproate, an anti-seizure medication, is one of the very few such medications.
  • There are some studies that suggest that older parents are more likely to have children with autism.
  • Some studies suggest that children who are born prematurely are more prone to develop autism.
  • Autism is also, to some degree, hereditary: it is more common in families in which there are already autistic members.

Risk Factors for "Autism-Like" Disorders

Because the autism spectrum is so broad, and includes people with such diverse sets of symptoms, it is easy to conflate autism spectrum disorder with, say, late talking... social anxiety...apraxia...learning disabilities... sensory processing disorder...and even hearing loss. All of these issues can (and usually are) incorporated into autism, so it can be confusing to sort out the "true" autism from the "autism-like disorder."

Autism-like disorders can be caused by a huge range of diseases, genetic differences, and environmental triggers. For example, a child with fetal alcohol syndrome may have many of the features of a child with autism -- and may even be diagnosable with autism in addition to FAS. Learning delays can be caused by lead poisoning and, depending upon how and when the delays present themselves, a child might be diagnosed with autism and also diagnosed with lead poisoning.

Mythical or Questionable Risk Factors for Autism

Over the years, dozens of causes have been mentioned in association with autism. From "too much cable TV" to "airplane contrails" to bad parenting to vaccines, ultrasounds and cell phones, almost everything in our modern world has come under scrutiny.  And no. You can't protect your child from autism by avoiding technology, preventive medicine, or saying "no" when your child misbehaves. These things don't cause autism, so avoiding these things can't protect your child from developing the symptoms of autism.

Can You Protect Your Child from Autism? Yes and No...

There's no doubt that you can protect your child from many environmental factors that could cause some or several of the symptoms associated with autism. For example, you can:

  • Ensure that, while pregnant, you avoid exposure to potentially toxic drugs, alcohol, or environmental dangers;
  • Check to be sure that paint in your home is lead-free and is no peeling;
  • Do you best to ensure that your pregnancies come relatively early, and that the father of your child is not over 45 when you become pregnant;
  • Follow doctors' order if you're at risk of giving birth prematurely;
  • Take your child to the doctor on a regular basis, and be sure to check for issues such as hearing loss, allergies, and other issues that can create "autism like" symptoms.

On the other hand, there are many potentially significant risk factors that are out of your hands. For example:

  • If you choose to have children, you have no control over your own genetic mix (or your partner's);
  • If you choose to take advantage of modern medicine and technology (something few Americans would choose to avoid), you will encounter ultrasounds, cell phones, and cable TV -- for better or for worse;
  • If you live in certain areas or work in certain industries, there is only so much you can do to avoid exposure to chemicals and pollutants.
  • No matter how careful you are, you may not be able to avoid a premature birth.

While it's almost impossible to actually protect a child from autism, it is possible to help your child with autism or autism-like symptoms to live a very full life. The key to success is to keep a close eye on developmental concerns -- and to take advantage of opportunities for treatment as early as possible.

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