As soon as the pregnancy test comes back positive, parents will do anything to protect their baby-to-be. That includes doing what they can to lower their child’s risk for autism spectrum disorders (ASD), which affect 1 in 68 children. Some research says this can start before birth. One study in the New England Journal of Medicine found differences in the brains of children with autism as early as the second trimester of pregnancy. While researchers haven’t been able to pinpoint a definite cause, ASD likely develops from a combination of factors. “Some cases may primarily have a genetic cause, and others may have a primarily environmental cause, but most cases probably result from the interaction of both,” says Paul Wang, M.D., senior vice president of medical research for Autism Speaks.
While you can’t do much to change genetics, you can alter your exposure to certain environmental factors that have shown a link to ASD. However, none of these lifestyle changes are absolutes—experts can’t tell you that lowering your exposure to one particular factor will lower your child’s risk. “Evidence about environmental risk during pregnancy is really at its infancy, so any data-supported hypotheses must be investigated further as nothing is yet considered a certain cause,” says M. Daniele Fallin, Ph.D., director of the Wendy Klag Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. The key is for pregnant women to take some safe, proactive steps like these that can potentially protect their babies.