Prevention of Autism: Is it Possible?

Is autism preventable?  You might be wondering how to avoid autism during pregnancy.  Although there’s currently no cure or definitive way to prevent autism spectrum disorder, studies have found that certain actions can help pregnant women lower the risk of having a child with ASD. Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurological disability that causes significant development delays, especially in social functioning. According to Autism Speaks, one in 45 children in the United States have been diagnosed with autism.

Women who are pregnant (or planning to be) can develop prevention strategies for autism to increase their chances of delivering a healthy baby. Research in the New England Journal of Medicine found that disparities in brain development begin as early as the second trimester for autistic children. Starting at conception, the following tips may help expectant mothers prevent autism during pregnancy.

See Also: What are the 10 Most Common Signs of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)?

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How to Help Prevent Autism Spectrum Disorder by Reducing Exposure to Toxins

Can you prevent autism?  The scientific community has discovered evidence that environmental factors can be a risk factor for autism symptoms and ASD.

Airborne Toxins

One Harvard study found that children born to mothers exposed to high pollution levels had twice the risk of autism spectrum disorder. Women should reduce their exposure to pollution from cars and trucks as much as possible.

Pollution from traffic isn’t the only risk factor for autism.  A study in Demark showed that there may be a connection between autism and higher than normal levels of sulfur dioxide found in the shipping industry.

Pregnant women can limit airborne toxins by:

  • wearing masks
  • filling their gas tank after dark
  • staying indoors when air quality is low
  • avoiding areas with high traffic, especially when exercising

Access to Clean Water

Studies have shown that the water we drink may have contaminants that could be connected to higher rates of autism within certain communities.  Heavy metals like lead and aluminum are known to cause health problems and affect brain development.  Our drinking water can also contain pesticides and manganese.

Pharmaceutical drugs can also get into our water supply.  Antidepressants in drinking water have been linked to an increased risk of autism.  When a water supply is located downstream from a water treatment plant, pharmaceuticals that are excreted through human waste or flushed down the toilet can make it into the drinking water.

Filtering your water or drinking water that you know is free from contaminants can prevent these toxic chemicals from entering the body.  Women who are pregnant should be especially careful drinking tap water.

Switching to Green Personal Care Products

Women can make the switch to green personal care products to lessen exposure to risk factors like harmful chemicals.  A study by the journal Environmental Health Perspectives shoed that in utero exposure to phthalate is linked to autistic traits in boys.  Phthalates are endocrine disrupting chemicals found in cosmetics and other products.  Taking the appropriate amount of folic acid may block the effects of phthalate while pregnant and aid in autism prevention.

Can Autism Be Prevented by Maintaining a Nutritious Diet?

While you may not be able to prevent autism, there are things you can do to lower your risk of having a child with ASD.  Women can lower the risk for autism by eating colorful, organic diet rich in green vegetables and fruits containing antioxidants.  Doctors recommend eating at least 80 grams of protein per day from lean sources like:

  • turkey
  • chicken
  • nuts

Many health experts support reducing “white foods,” including bread and sugar.  These white foods can be heavily processed and contain fewer nutrients than their whole counterparts.  When foods are refined many vitamins and minerals are removed.

Folic Acid

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services suggest soon-to-be mothers take 400 to 800 mcg of folic acid to assist with their child’s development.  Folic acid is needed by the body to help form the neural tube.  There is research to show that taking this B vitamin before and early in pregnancy is associated with a lower risk of ASD.

Vitamin D

Increasing intake of vitamin D has been linked to better neurological development in fetuses. One study found that women who were deficient in vitamin D halfway through their pregnancy were 2.42 times more likely to have a child with autism spectrum disorder that a woman with a normal vitamin D level.   The reasons are unknown and more research is needed on a possible connection between vitamin D and ASD.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Doctors recommend pregnant women should get enough omega-3 fatty acids.  A study from Harvard School of Public Health found a link between an unbalanced consumption of omega fatty acids during pregnancy and a risk of autism spectrum disorder.  They found that children born to mothers who did not consume adequate amounts of omega-3 fatty acids are 53% more likely to be born with ASD.

Weight Gain During Pregnancy

Weight gain during pregnancy is another risk factor for autism spectrum disorder.  A modest weight gain of 25 to 35 pounds during pregnancy is optimal.  A study published by Pediatrics, the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, found a possible link between maternal prenatal weight gain and ASD.  They found that the risk of a child developing autism increased significantly with pregnancy weight gain but not pre-pregnancy BMI.  This research suggests that autism has an underlying gestational etiology.

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How to Prevent Autism During Pregnancy by Staying in Good Health

Regular check-ups with a family physician and obstetrician are important. Maternal health throughout pregnancy has a significant impact on unborn children. Mothers should be immunized against German measles (rubella) and get an influenza shot. Research at the MIND Institute found that viral infections can interfere with the baby’s brain cells and alter neural connections.

Gestational Diabetes and Weight

Taking all precautions to avoid gestational diabetes can help lower the risk for autism. Obesity and diabetes in the mother have been linked to autism.  Both of these conditions are known to induce inflammation or impair immune signaling.  A meta-analysis of 32 papers published in 2018 concluded that women who are overweight or obese before pregnancy are more likely than a woman of a healthy weight to have a child diagnosed with autism.

Prescription Medications

Pregnant women should make sure they are taking prescriptions under medical supervision.  In the 1950’s and 1960’s, thalidomide was prescribed to women for morning sickness.  It was later found to cause birth defects.  The drug, valproate, is used to treat epilepsy and bipolar.  It is also linked to autism when taken during pregnancy.  The jury is still out on many other medications including antidepressants.  Since antidepressants treat an underlying mental-health condition, it is hard to discern whether there is a connection to autism through the medication or if it is solely genetic.

Mercury Dental Fillings

Having a dentist remove mercury-based amalgam fillings before conception could be beneficial.  In the past, dentists used mercury fillings on human teeth.  We now know that mercury is poisonous and should not be used.  Women who are pregnant or trying to trying to become pregnant and have mercury fillings should talk to their dentist about whether it is safe to remove the fillings.

Cesarean Sections

Babies’ neurological function is naturally enhanced by passing through the birth canal, so avoiding unnecessary Cesarean sections can help.  A case study was conducted in Saudi Arabie in 2016.  Their data supported an association between cesarean section and autism spectrum disorder.  These results support the findings of other such studies.  Obviously, c-sections are needed in the event of birth complications.  Based on this information, unnecessary c-sections should be avoided to lower the risk for autism spectrum disorder.

Parental Age 

A study in the Molecular Psychiatry journal found that autism rates are 15 percent higher in children born to mothers in their 40s and 66 percent higher for fathers over 50. This study echos the findings of other studies that suspect a link between parental age and autism.

Fathers in their 40s and 50s might have higher odds of having children with autism spectrum disorder because their sperm has accumulated many spontaneous mutations that are passed down to their offspring.  As sperm cells divide, their DNA is copied, leaving room for mutations to occur.

There have been fewer studies conducted on maternal age and autism risk.  Egg cells reproduce, although to a lesser extent than sperm cells, and could pass on mutations. A study in California reviewed birth records between 1990 and 1999.  There were 5 million babies born and over 12,000 autism cases.  They found that women over 40 were 77% more likely than women under the age of 25 to have a child diagnosed with autism.  That percentage decreases with age.

Good pregnancy planning and the above health-conscious steps can effectively help expecting women do everything they can in preventing autism.

Genetics Play a Huge Role in Autism

Autism is a complex disorder without a single known cause or “trigger.” In fact, autism is likely caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors.  Scientists agree that genetics are responsible for up to 90 percent of the autism risk. Whether a child develops ASD is usually out of the parents’ control.

Certain genetic disorders are associated with an increased risk for autism spectrum disorder.  Fragile X Syndrome is a genetic condition that can cause behavioral challenges.  Fragile X can also cause learning challenges along with various physical conditions.  It’s believed to be the leading genetic cause of autism.  One in three people with Fragile X will also have a diagnosis of autism.

Cornelia de Lange Syndrome is another genetic condition related to autism.  Between 50% and 75% of individuals diagnosed with CdLS have autism characteristics.  Symptoms like social anxiety and extreme shyness are prevalent in this population.  Selective mutism is also common.

There are other risk factors for autism spectrum disorder that are beyond a parent’s control.  These include:

  • the sex of your child
  • family history
  • other disorders

According to research, boys are up to four times more likely to be diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder than girls.  Historically, males have been studied and diagnosed at a greater rate than females.   This could be because males are actually at greater risk for autism.  It could also be because screening tests aren’t always picking up ASD in females, especially among those considered high functioning.  More research is needed in this area.

Family history can also play a role in autism risk.  Parents who have one child with ASD are at an increased risk of having another child with the same diagnosis.  Relatives and parents may have communication deficits or problems communicating that can be mild symptoms of autism.


Unfortunately, there is no playbook that can help give a definitive answer to the question “Can autism be prevented?”  There are certainly things you can do to reduce the risk, but there are no guarantees. If you suspect your child may have autism, early intervention is key.  Seek the advice of a medical professional who can complete appropriate screenings.  Reach out to therapists early who can help optimize future outcomes for children with autism.  Most importantly, understand that you are not alone and help is available for children diagnosed with ASD.