Maternal Obesity, Diabetes Linked to Autism in Children

Study finds a link between maternal obesity and diabetes and a significant increase in the risk of autism spectrum disorder in children.

Maternal obesity and diabetes are linked to an increased risk of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), according to a study published in Pediatrics.

Women with obesity and pregestational diabetes or obesity and gestational diabetes had a significantly increased risk of offspring ASD, researchers from Johns Hopkins University found. There was a similar pattern of increased risk of intellectual disabilities.

"It's important for us to now try to figure out what is it about the combination of obesity and diabetes that is potentially contributing to sub-optimal fetal health," study co-author M. Daniele Fallin, PhD, director of the Wendy Klag Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities at the Bloomberg School and chair of the Department of Mental Health, said in a statement.

The researchers examined records of 2734 children who completed at least 1 postnatal study visit at Boston Medical Center between 1998 and 2014. Risks of ASD and other developmental disabilities were compared among groups defined by the mother’s prepregnancy obesity and diabetes status. Overall, they identified 102 diagnoses of ASD.

Obese women with diabetes were more than 4 times as likely to have children with autism. Unfortunately, it is still unknown why diabetes and obesity in mothers contributes to ASD risk.

Johns Hopkins pointed out the importance of this research as the prevalence of autism has “skyrocketed” at the same time that obesity and diabetes have reached epidemic levels in women of child-bearing age.

"In order to prevent autism, we may need to consider not only pregnancy, but also pre-pregnancy health," Dr Fallin said.