Maternal Diabetes May Increase Risk of Autism in Infants

If you are a woman with diabetes, you may be at a much higher risk of having a child with autism or other developmental disorders.  That was the conclusion of a major study by researchers affiliated with the UC Davis MIND Institute.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is the name given to a group of complex neurological and developmental disorders of the brain which includes autism, Asperger syndrome, and other conditions.  According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, people with ASD may have social impairment, difficulty communicating, or unusually restricted, repetitive or stereotyped patterns of behavior.  Children with ASD often have difficulty learning common social cues including tone of voice and facial expressions.  They may have difficulty interacting with others and are often said to lack empathy.

The UC Davis study considered the relationship between maternal metabolic conditions and the risk of developmental disorders of the brain.  The researchers concluded that women with diabetes were nearly 67 percent more likely to have a child with developmental delays than women who were healthy.  In addition, the study showed that children with ASD born to diabetic mothers were more disabled than other children with ASD.   The children with diabetic mothers had more problems with language comprehension and production, and more problems with adaptive communication.

In addition, the study showed that children born to women with diabetes were more likely to have problems with socialization even when they did not have autism.  These children also lagged in language comprehension and speech compared to children born to healthy mothers.

According to the study, obese women were also 67 percent more likely to have a child with autism spectrum disorder. These women were also at more than double the risk of having a child with other developmental disorders. Researcher Paula Krakowiak, PhD said, “Over a third of US women in their childbearing years are obese, and nearly one-tenth have gestational or type 2 diabetes during pregnancy.  Our finding that these maternal conditions may be linked with neurodevelopmental problems in children raises concerns and therefore may have serious public-health implications.”

Krakowiak clarified that the study does not show that diabetes or obesity are causes of autism.  But she said the study suggests that exposure to high blood sugar in the womb may cause problems in a child’s development before birth.

Diabetes is a condition that results when excess sugar or glucose accumulates in the blood.  Normally, insulin helps move sugar from the blood into cells where it is used as a source of energy.  In type 2 diabetes, cells are not able to use insulin effectively which causes the buildup of excess glucose.  During pregnancy, this extra sugar passes through the placenta into the bloodstream of the developing baby.

Obesity is the result of having too much body fat.  The body mass index (BMI) scale is used to designate whether a person is overweight or obese based on the relationship between weight and height.  In general, a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or more is considered obese. People who are obese are at significantly higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes because being obese causes cells to become resistant to insulin, which results in higher than normal blood sugar levels.

Elevated blood sugar causes the body to produce more insulin in an effort to lower sugar levels.  Researchers know that producing more insulin uses more oxygen.  They suggest this may mean less oxygen is passed through the placenta to the fetus.   Diabetes may also cause low iron levels in the fetus, which reduces the ability of the baby’s blood to carry oxygen.

This study was supported by the National Institutes of Health, the US Environmental Protection Agency, and the UC Davis MIND Institute.  It was published online in Pediatrics, the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Denise DeWitt is a freelance writer for


Science Daily.  Maternal Obesity, Diabetes Associated With Autism, Other Developmental Disorders. Web. April 15, 2012.

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Autism Fact Sheet. Web. April 15, 2012.

Medline Plus. Obesity. Web. April 15, 2012.

Diabetes Forecast. Obesity and Type 2 Diabetes. Erika Gebel, PhD. Web. April 15, 2012.

Related Links:

I’m Diabetic So How Do I Get Ready for My First Pregnancy?

Risk Factors for Autism.

New Findings in Autism.

Tags: diabetes research,Autism spectrum disorder and diabetes,autism and diabetes,diabetes risk for autism,obesity and autism,diabetes and ASD,autism research

Category: Featured Articles,Resources