A Trinity College professor - and mother of a son with autism - is asking that question.
Molly Helt, Assistant Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at the Hartford school, has embarked on an exploratory study, investigating how in utero environmental exposures may or may not affect autism risk after the child is born.
It is unclear whether the number of kids with autism is increasing or if experts are diagnosing the developmental disorder more these days. “I think the jury is still out," says Helt, the Principal Investigator, who believes we should - at least - be looking at the possibility that environmental and/or societal changes are playing a role in the rising statistics. Right now, most autism research dollars are supporting the study of genetics but there are still many, many questions. “Even two brothers who have autism are unlikely to have the same genetic underpinnings," says Helt. This fact inspired her to ask: then, what did they share?
The mother's body.
“What I’m really interested in is the affects of the mother’s body, the mother’s sort-of hormonal milieu, and also the environmental effects that have changed. One thing that has really changed a lot in the last thirty years is that there are a lot of chemicals in the environment that are what we call 'endocrine mimickers',” explains Helt, working with students in the Autism Research Lab. These chemicals that mimic estrogen are found in shampoos and cleaning products. Over time, exposure can lead to a woman becoming "estrogen dominant".
“Mom’s level of estrogen when she’s pregnant also determines or regulates certain genes being turned on or off early in the development of a fetus," she says, noting this is a unique, new area of research. “What I’m interested in looking at is: is there an interaction effect where - over time - mothers who’ve gotten this estrogen dominance, is it affecting the genetic outcome of the fetus?”
Now, she is simply giving women this survey which contains important questions. “Are mothers of children with autism more likely to have gotten their periods when they were younger? Are they more likely to have had more body fat since that holds estrogen and estrogen encourages retention of fat?” says Helt who earned a PhD in Clinical Psychology from the University of Connecticut. If she makes significant correlations through the survey, she will apply for a grant which will then support actual testing of mother's estrogen levels.
A few hundred moms have already participated in this study. Helt is looking for more support from biological mothers of children with or without Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). The survey takes about 15 minutes to complete. Participants will receive a $15.00 Amazon gift card.
As a mom of a child with autism, Helt aims to make a difference.
“I know a lot of children with autism, I know very few 40 year olds with autism. So, I’m someone who suspects there is an actual increase,” she says. “I think the next step is for us is to realize there is no one thing called autism. I think that’s what’s been tripping us up. We do a study - we have 20 kids with autism and 20 typical kids and we think all those kids with autism are similar in some way - and yet I think autism is probably hundreds of different things. Once we can wrap our heads around that as a field, and realize that our studies have to have a thousand children, or ten thousand children, I think then we will begin to move forward.”
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