The role of environmental factors in the development of autism is a crucial area of study. We know that genetics strongly influence the risk for developing autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
However, genetics alone do not account for all instances of autism. For good reason, the increasing prevalence of autism has generated great interest in the potential involvement of toxins in our environment. For example, prenatal exposure to the chemicals thalidomide and valproic acid has been linked to increased risk of autism.
Despite ongoing research and medical advances, no one knows the true root cause of autism. Here we take a closer look at some environmental factors that are studied and their associated implications to the field of autism.
What are Environmental Risk Factors?
When studying the cause or root of a certain condition, disease, or medical phenomenon, medical researchers tend to look at both genetic and environmental factors as potential causes.
An environmental risk factor is defined as anything that can alter an individual’s likelihood to have a condition outside of the realm of genetics. Environmental factors exist independent of the individual’s biology, and influence them through chance or circumstance. Oftentimes they lay outside the realm of anyone’s control.
The Environmental Risk Factors Associated with Autism
Though many of the studies were inconclusive, some of the most commonly researched environmental risk factors include:
- Being born prematurely
- Being born to a mother with diabetes
- Being born after an older sibling
- Being born to an older than average father
- Mothers who are on prenatal antidepressants
- Mothers with autoimmune diseases
- Having a low birth weight
- Mothers who experience high blood pressure during pregnancy
- Mothers who experience many fevers throughout pregnancy
- And many more…
What can Parents do to Lessen their Exposure to Environmental Risks?
Families who are at a high risk of having a child on the autism spectrum, like those who already have a child on the spectrum, should talk to their doctor or genetic counselor or a member of our team at Right Start Inc early and often in order to
receive the best advice and recommendations as early as possible.
The most basic thing women who are pregnant can do is follow the doctors’ orders and take plenty of prenatal vitamins to care for themselves and their baby.
Helping children with autism adapt to their environment is one aspect of a comprehensive treatment approach, but it’s also important to structure the environment in such a way that it maximizes your child’s odds of success.
While substantial home modifications may not be in your budget, there are some simple changes you can make to help your child thrive. For major renovations, you can also look into grant opportunities. Not sure what changes to make? These ideas will get you started.
Create a Cool-Down Room
If you have an unused room in your home or if an addition or remodel is feasible, consider creating a cool-down room, which can be especially useful if your child experiences aggression.
This room is like a safe space for your child, where they can go before a situation escalates to the point of aggression – their own space where they can be alone and relax.
Furnish the room minimally, and make sure all objects in the room are soft. Cover windows with plexiglass and keep furniture away from windows to prevent your child from easily climbing out. Make sure that sensory objects, relaxing music, and other calming items are readily available.
Install Alarm Systems and Utilize Safety Locks
Because children with autism sometimes have a tendency to wander, equip all windows and doors in your home with safety locks. You can install locking systems that function without keys that you can control from a smartphone. Additionally, consider an alarm system that will alert you when someone exits the home so that you can quickly bring your child to safety should they get past the locks.
Provide a Suitable Workstation
Kids with autism will need a space where they can work productively, whether they will be working on schoolwork or therapeutic tasks. Equip your child’s bedroom or study area with a large workstation free of clutter or any objects that they may throw in frustration.
Appropriate seating is also key; depending on how your child works best, you might want a chair with arms or a wrap-around style chair that will help them feel secure.
If you’ll be doing therapy or other activities on the floor, consider padding that is conducive for different types of activities and won’t leave you with aching joints after a few hours of play time with your child.
These are just some starter ideas that professionals recommend to maximize your
child’s potential for learning, growth, and help them feel more at ease with their
activities of daily living. To learn more, please call Right Start, Inc. at (718) 375-2505.