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Autism Linked to Mom's Autoimmune Disease—Including Celiac Disease 07/08/2009 - Kids whose moms have autoimmune diseases such as type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and celiac disease face a risk of autism that is up to three times higher than that of the general population, according to a new study.

Although earlier studies have documented a connection between autism and a maternal history of type 1 diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis, this is the first study to document a link between autism and celiac disease, according to the study's authors.

A team of researchers led by Dr. William W. Eaton, chairman of the Department of Mental Health at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University recently set out to review data related to autoimmune deficiency and autism.  

Eaton's team collected data on 3,325 Danish children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, including 1,089 diagnosed with infantile autism. All of the children were born between 1993 and 2004, and their data was part of the Danish National Psychiatric Registry. Data on family members with autoimmune diseases came from the Danish National Hospital Register.

The data showed that children whose mothers had autoimmune disease faced a higher risk of developing autism spectrum disorder than children of mothers who did not have these conditions. Moreover, children with a family history of type 1 diabetes faced an increased risk of infantile autism.

Overall, the increased risk of autism in people with autoimmune diseases is not huge, Eaton said. "The increased risk for type 1 diabetes is a little less than two times, for rheumatoid arthritis it's about 1.5 times and for celiac disease it's more than three times," Eaton said. "That's enough to impress an epidemiologist, but not enough to make anybody in the general population start changing their behavior."

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Eaton added that this finding "reinforces the suggestion that autoimmune processes are connected somehow with the cause of autism and autism spectrum disorder, and...may point a flashlight to areas of the genome that connect to autism."

The finding itself has no clinical significance, says Eaton, but could guide future efforts by researchers to determine the cause or causes of autism.

One reason autoimmune diseases might have a role in autism lies in genetic history, Eaton said. Children who were underweight or premature at birth face a higher risk for autism, and both of these obstetric problems are associated with celiac disease, he added.

There may be a significant overlap "in the genetics of some of the autoimmune diseases and autism," he said. "Autism is strongly inherited, but we don't have the faintest idea where...this finding is on the pathway of finding the cause of autism." Various environmental triggers may also affect the fetus, he said.

Lead researcher, Dr. Hjordis O. Atladottir, from the Institute of Public Health at the University of Aarhus in Denmark calls the findings important because they support the theory that autism is somehow tied to problems with the immune system.

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8 Responses:

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said this on
13 Jul 2009 6:34:29 AM PST
This is a fascinating result and may tie in with the hypothesis that Vitamin D deficiency in pregnancy is a major factor in some cases of autism. (Vitamin D being more likely to be low in celiac mothers, obviously.) What would be even more interesting would be to see the figures for autistic children born to celiac mothers before diagnosis, who might all be expected to be low in D. These mothers all appear to have been diagnosed.


said this on
11 Aug 2009 11:55:33 PM PST
I wonder where does all this lead us to? More than 50% people today are suffering from some or the other autoimmune disease. For an example I am type 1 diabetic, my daughter is a coeliac, my husband is suffering from some form of AS. Our future generations are probably doomed.

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said this on
04 Nov 2009 9:19:40 AM PST
My entire family is in some way suffering from some form of autoimmune disease and all of my nieces, nephews and offspring are affected too. Three generations of medical problems has cost my family time money and heartache. I would have liked to have known in advance that I could have changed my diet or decided not to have children. More of this information needs to be available to women of childbearing age.


said this on
11 Aug 2013 10:00:57 PM PST
Absolutely! Very well written. I am a mother of a son with autism and am just now being diagnosed with celiac disease as a senior citizen. Two other children have asthma and one daughter struggles with mental illness and a sensory processing disorder. It has cost our family a lot. I believe women of child bearing age should be tested for celiac disease. Those who have it can hopefully improve the health of their families by eliminating gluten from their diet. I'm asking my two daughters to get tested.

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said this on
04 Mar 2010 5:10:42 PM PST
Very interesting finding. I was pregnant with my third son when I was diagnosed. He was diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. My second son has tested negative by biopsy for celiac, but when he eats wheat he gets sick within a half-hour. He is on a gluten free diet. Something else that is rather interesting--my oldest sister, youngest sister, cousin, and uncle have all been diagnosed with celiac as well. Autoimmune disorders are very prevalent and unfortunately celiac disease education is not spreading quick enough.

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said this on
24 May 2010 11:51:22 AM PST
As a person on the autism spectrum and with ASD showing up to greater and lesser degrees in most members of my family for four generations, I believe that the celiac disease is caused by autism, not the other way around. Mothers who have celiac may have it because they have autism genes. The autism simply may show up more pronounced in their children. My sister appears to have celiac and her son shows signs of ASD but she does as well, just maybe not enough to diagnose.
I believe the same goes for low birth weight and early births, and late births. I believe my son was born late and my labor was long because my ASD caused intense fear of giving birth. My son clearly has ASD. It may be just from my genes but it may also have been increased by the long labor and hence some encephalitis.

Sad Too
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said this on
24 May 2010 12:08:52 PM PST
I am finding more out every day. My children have learning difficulties/dyslexia like their dad. He is a colic and has type A blood which is also connected to autism. I have really struggled over the years feeling on my own and I have been, it was not an illusion. I am at present trying to find a psychiatrist via private health care to diagnose whether one of my children is on the Autistic Spectrum. I feel scared. Everything I know has been my own doing. Doctors need to help the innocent people that live daily with the problems linked to the above. I agree with Sad and that I have been alot. If I had been aware I may not have decided to have children with their dad. I do not mean it cruelly, I have been through a lot on my own with behavioral issues from the two worst affected and was not aware of why. I felt a nervous wreck until I started researching. Lots makes sense now.

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said this on
15 Sep 2012 1:05:16 PM PST
My son has ASD, gluten and dairy intolerance, type A blood. My husband, type A blood, gluten and dairy intolerance. Me, type O blood and possible celiac, iron deficiency, dairy intolerant.
I am a 100% believer in food crossing the blood brain barrier... People with type A blood have a higher occurrence of Autism/ food allergies. my son is on a gluten-free, casein-free diet and is doing much better! all this information being reported needs to be linked in some way, blood type, food allergies, genetics =autism

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