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Study: Inducing and Speeding Up Labor Associated with Autism Risk

A new study published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics this week found a substantial association between women having their labor induced or sped up and the incidence of autism. While researchers stress they did not find a cause-and-effect connection, the study strongly reaffirmed medical consensus that autism is developed during pregnancy or during birth, not later in life.

Could autism, at least in some cases, actually be the result of a chemical birth injury caused by oxytocin or prostaglandins? The study wasn’t set up to study the effects of specific medications, but the association between labor induction or hastening of labor appears stark.

According to data cited by ABC News, approximately 1 in 5 women in the U.S. have their labor induced, and that’s twice as many as in 1990. Autism is estimated to affect about 1 in 88 American children and its cause or causes are unclear. Other factors associated with a greater risk of autism in an infant include genetics, the father’s age at the time of conception, medications used by the mother during pregnancy, and certain complicating illnesses in pregnancy.

This study is the largest yet performed. Researchers compared eight years’ worth of birth records from North Carolina — more than 625,000. Then, they matched up the names with school records, which typically list children’s autism diagnoses because those children are usually entitled to an individual education plan meant to work with their conditions. However, the severity of the autism was not listed.

Of those 625,042 births, labor had been hastened or induced in more than 170,000, and a total of 5,648 children had reportedly developed autism. Comparing those with autism and the type of labor, the researchers found that boys whose mothers’ labor was both induced and hastened by drugs were 35 percent more likely to have developed autism than the other children.

In girls, no increased association with autism was found when labor had been induced. When labor had been drug-accelerated, however, the girls were 18 percent more likely to develop autism than girls whose mothers had not been given either treatment.

While the findings were not of the type that could confirm that some autism is caused by a chemical birth injury from the drugs, they did show a statistically significant relationship. On the other hand, a weakness in the research is that it is not yet possible to tell whether the drugs cause autism, or if something about autism results in slow and difficult labor.

Source: ABC News, “Inducing Labor May Be Tied to Autism: Study,” Lindsey Tanner, Associated Press, Aug. 12, 2013