What causes autism?

Autism spectrum disorder refers to a range of complex neuro development disorders, the hallmark feature of which is impaired social interaction. ASD may hit your child while he is still in your womb or may strike suddenly as you notice your normally developing child withdrawing from a social engagement. Autism symptoms self-abusive behavior like biting or head-banging, repetitive movements like rocking or twirling, lack of empathy, affinity for order and social disengagement. Irrespective of whether your child is showing autism signs or not, autism causes are something you must know, especially if you’re planning a baby or have small children at home.


Unlike earlier theories that suggested genetic factors to be one of the main reasons behind autism, emerging studies point to an array of environmental and other factors that might be behind this disorder. In fact, one of the most definitive autism researches in this direction now points out a list of hazardous chemicals in the environment that might increase your unborn child’s risk for autism. Knowing and avoiding interactions with such environmental factors, therefore, could help you avert a painful situation.

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Demystifying autism: What causes autism?

To begin with, for 90% of autism children, no specific underlying cause can be identified. For only about 10% of ASD cases, an underlying medical condition or environmental cause can be identified.

Autism causes: Genetic

Traditional “autism causes” theories suggest that ASD could result from the disruption of normal brain development when the baby is still inside the mother’s womb. Such aberrations have been attributed to defects in genes that control brain growth and regulate how brain cells communicate with each other. Inheritance has often been thought to play a role as twin and family studies suggest that in a family where one child is affected with ASD, the risk of the second child being affected too is more.

Neurological factors

Some studies suggest that scrambled or faulty connections between parts of the brain called the cerebral cortex, the amygdala and the limbic system could cause ASD. This may be a reason why ASD children may exhibit a sudden extreme emotional response on seeing something trivial or find it hard to accept and adjust to changes in routines, environment and surroundings.

Autism risk factors: Health Conditions

Certain health conditions like fragile X syndrome, tuberous sclerosis, Rett syndrome, neurofibromatosis, muscular dystrophy, Down’s syndrome, cerebral palsy etc. have been known to increase the risk for autism disorder.

Autism causes: Environmental

Some suggested environmental triggers included premature birth (being born before 35 weeks of pregnancy), exposure to alcohol or certain medication such as sodium valproate during pregnancy. Recent research points out a list of harmful chemical substances, exposure to which can cause autism or ADHD and related brain development problems. On your part, avoiding these chemicals during pregnancy or keeping small children away from them is an important step you could take.


This heavy metal can cause brain damage to developing babies. If you’re trying to get pregnant, are pregnant, breastfeeding or have small children at home, stay away from removing old paint, check that your drinking water doesn’t contain lead and consume diet low in fat and high in calcium and iron, with foods like low-fat dairy and leafy green vegetables- that help block lead exposure.


Mercury is highly toxic and damaging to the brains of developing fetuses. Mercury created from coal-fired power plants often lands up in rivers, streams and oceans from which you get your fish supply. Eat lower on the food chain to avoid such exposure. Mercury has also been found in high-fructose corn syrup.


PCBs, earlier used in electronics, are found all over the environment and even inside most of us. Highly toxic, small doses can do a lot of harms. Again, eating lower on the food chain or removing fish skin and trimming fatty parts of meat can help you keep PCBs at bay.

Organochlorine pesticides

DDT, now banned, is the worst organochlorine pesticide. Yet there are so many more that continue to be in use and endanger children born to mothers particularly in high spray farm areas. Support organic farming and stay away from conventional snap beans, tomatoes and watermelons, just to be on the safe side.

Organophosphate pesticides

These are legal in agriculture, but leave residues on apples, bell peppers, cranberries, kale, grapes, peaches etc. So eat organic as much as possible.

Automotive exhaust

Air pollution from automobile exhaust could also lead an increased risk of autism. Minimize your exposure to it by carpooling or traveling during the fewer peak hours, whenever possible.

Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons

Burned meat, coal-tar-based driveway sealants, anti-dandruff shampoos, cigarette smoke and mothballs are sources of a harmful chemical called PAH. Choose substitutes instead.

Hormone –Disrupting chemicals

Bisphenol A (BPA) and plasticizing chemicals called phthalates, found in lots of daily use products like soaps, shampoos, cleaners and air fresheners are also linked to autism in children. Try avoiding canned foods and beverages, No.7 plastics, scented candles, air fresheners and stay away from personal care products that list “perfume” or “fragrance” as an ingredient.

Non-Stick Chemicals

If you notice scratches and chips in your non-stick cookware, replace them immediately with safer American –made cast iron or untreated stainless steel. Waterproof clothing and certain stain-repelling fabrics used in carpeting and furniture also often contain harmful chemicals.

One of the famous autism causes myths that now stand disproved is that autism is caused by childhood vaccines.

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