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November 01, 2022

Expectant mothers with autism face extra challenges, studies show

They were almost three times more likely to experience prenatal depression according to new research

Women's Health Pregnancy
Expectant mothers with autism Lisa Runnels/Pixabay

Research from the University of Cambridge suggest that pregnant women with autism should receive extra surveillance and support during prenatal care to ensure healthy outcomes for both mother and child.

Women diagnosed with autism may be at higher risk for certain complications during pregnancy than other women, research shows.

A new study published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders found that women with autism were more likely to develop depression and anxiety during pregnancy than women without the disorder.

The University of Cambridge researchers emphasized the importance of mental health screening and support for these women.

"The results also suggest that autistic people may benefit from accommodations to prenatal health care. These may include adjustments to the sensory environment of health care settings, as well as adjustments to how information is communicated during prenatal appointments," co-author Rosie Holt, a research associate at the university's Autism Research Center, said in a statement.

The researchers surveyed more than 900 women about their pregnancy experience for the study. Of the participants, 417 had autism and 524 did not. Overall, those with autism were more likely to report having prenatal depression and anxiety. About 24% of the women with autism experienced depression compared to 9% of the other women. And 48% of the women with autism reported experiencing anxiety during their pregnancy compared with 14% of the other women.

Expectant mothers with autism were also more likely to experience sensory issues during their pregnancies. Many reported feeling overwhelmed by smells, sights, lights and sounds during their prenatal appointments.

These women were also less satisfied overall with their pregnancy-related health care. Distrust of healthcare professionals and feeling like their questions and concerns were not taken seriously by their doctor were common complaints. They were also less likely to be satisfied with how information was presented to them during their appointments.

"It is important that more research is conducted looking at the experiences of autistic new parents, who have been neglected in research," study co-author Sir Simon Baron-Cohen, director of the Autism Research Center, said in a statement. "It is also important that this research is translated into health and social care policy and practice to ensure these parents receive the support and adaptations they need in a timely manner."

Previous research has also indicated that pregnant women with autism may be at a higher risk of other pregnancy complications as well.

One 2015 study published in the American Journal on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities analyzed hospital discharge records for 1,706 women with intellectual or developmental disabilities, including autism spectrum disorder, cerebral palsy and Down syndrome. They found that pregnant women with an intellectual or developmental disability were more likely to experience preeclampsia, preterm birth, fetal death and prolonged hospitalization after delivery.

And a 2018 study that just looked at women with autism found they had an increased risk of preterm birth, especially medically indicated preterm birth, but not spontaneous preterm birth. Maternal autism was also associated with an increased risk of elective cesarean delivery and preeclampsia, but not with emergency cesarean delivery, low infant Apgar score, gestational diabetes or stillbirth.

Overall research continues to suggest that pregnant women with autism should receive extra surveillance and support during prenatal care to ensure healthy outcomes for both mother and child.

Autism is a developmental disorder that is characterized mostly by difficulties with social interactions and communication skills. It is usually diagnosed in childhood and can affect people to varying degrees. People with autism often have difficulties communicating and expressing emotions, as well as a sensitivity to light, sound, touch or taste.

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