A study published in JAMA Psychiatry reports a connection between child abuse and future risk of having children with autism. The report is based on information collected from at least 50,000 women as part of the Nurses Health Study 2. The connection existed even when the mother suffered moderate forms of abuse.

Researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health are behind the study. According to study authors, women in the study reported sexual, verbal and physical abuse. More serious abuse was associated with the highest likelihood of having a child with autism, but reports of moderate abuse also came into play. Women who fell in the top 25% (in terms of abuse severity) gave birth to children with autism 60% more often than women who reported no abuse.

In an attempt to rule out other factors that could contribute to the increased risk of autism, researchers accounted for gestational diabetes, smoking, and preeclampsia – three known risk factors for autism. Only 7% of women in the study were affected by these risk factors.

Researchers believe stress response may play a part in autism risk as it pertains to abused women. Abuse can alter the biological stress response, which has a physical effect on how the body responds to stress. There is also a connection between abuse and immune system function that could contribute to increased autism risk.

Marc Weisskopf, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, claims abuse in childhood has dynamic effects throughout life. “Childhood abuse is associated with a wide array of health problems in the person who experiences it, including both mental health outcomes like depression and anxiety, and physical health outcomes like obesity and lung disease. Our research suggests that the effects of childhood abuse may also reach across generations.”

Further research is needed to narrow down the intricate mechanisms that may contribute to increased autism risk in women who suffered abuse as children. Until research is completed, authors suggest increasing efforts to eliminate child abuse.

Source: Andrea L. Roberts et al. Association of Maternal Exposure to Childhood Abuse With Elevated Risk for Autism in Offspring Autism and Maternal Exposure to Childhood Abuse. JAMA Psychiatry, 2013; : 1 DOI: 10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2013.447