The Forgotten Link to Autism
Have studies linking anti-depressants to fetal development been brushed under the rug?
The discussion around autism and its potential causes has for far too long been usurped by the anti-vaccine movement. By now it should be common knowledge that vaccines do not cause autism, are not even remotely linked to autism, and have never been proven to be linked to autism. It is hard to over-state the disastrous impact that one fraudulent study released by a discredited “doctor” has done to society. This one ludicrous and virulent strain of misinformation has forever seemed to damage the public’s ability to trust science, to trust the media, and to trust the objectivity of the truth.
It has become controversial to even discuss this topic. Now, the prevailing opinion from the public is that we are to accept autism’s existence, that autism has always been part of society and has just been undiagnosed or misdiagnosed, and that to treat it as a disability or developmental defect is somehow disrespectful. I realize that this position is one rooted in empathy and kindness, and I do not refute its core values. The parents of autistic children have a very real and a very genuine need to protect their loved ones, to insure their common humanity is not discounted or othered. However, it does a disservice to future generations to pretend an investigation into the causation of fetal developmental concerns undermines the status of another’s humanity because they already live with the concern being investigated.
I am almost certain that any parent, given the choice, would gladly choose to see their child grow up with no hindrances to their mental development, rather than watch them live with such invisible hurdles. No parent wants their child to suffer a hardship if it can be prevented. This is why it is important to make sure research into this area is continued, and that previous research is acknowledged.
While cases of autism have been documented since 1943, when the first diagnosis of it was made by Leo Kanner, it did not become a widespread phenomenon until the 2000’s. There is debate on this, as to whether the increase in case prevalence is due to an actual increase in its existence, or simply a better understanding of its existence. Whatever the reason, cases of autism have steadily climbed in occurrence, up 30% since 2008. 1 in 68 children today are estimated to be impacted. It’s only natural that people would want to know why.
The Link to SSRI’s
The numbers of people being prescribed SSRI drugs, drugs that chemically alter the brain to treat things like depression and bi-polar disorder, should shock you. In all likelihood, you either know someone who has been prescribed one, or you yourself have been prescribed one. These include drugs such as Paxil, Effexor, Prozac, and the most common one, Zoloft.
In 2011, a report was released that documented an increase in this type of drug use of 400% over the decade between 1994 and 2005, with an estimated one in ten Americans taking an SSRI. This number was only shown to go up even more in another report that released in 2017, in which such findings were stated as women being twice as likely to be taking the drug than men in every age group.
Although it is dangerous to start thinking in terms of correlation in trends equating to causation, since these correlations are usually coincidental rather than not, it would be hard to ignore the possibility of the rising commonality of children affected by autism being linked with the rising prevalence of SSRI prescriptions. If 2 out of every 10 women in America have been prescribed an SSRI, and 1 out of 68 children born today are impacted by this cognitive inhibition, when you factor in how many women are prescribed SSRI medication during a pregnancy to combat depression and the numbers of women who may already be prescribed it, the possibility of linkage here seems more and more likely.
Aside from mere speculation, however, it turns out there have been studies conducted researching this very thing. Several studies conducted in 2013-2014 found a potential causal link between use of SSRI drugs during pregnancy and at least an increased risk of the disorder developing in exposed fetuses versus control groups. Examples of the studies in question are here, here, and here. This study by John Hopkins in 2014 found boys diagnosed with autism were 3 times more likely to have been exposed to SSRI’s in the womb than others. Another study published in 2016 further solidified this hypothesis, ruling out the potential explanation of depression being the determining factor, and focusing more on the risk in the second and third trimester. This study showed a significant increase in risk with use of the drug, so much so that law firms such as this one have been trying to file class action suits for those impacted.
Other studies, such as this one in 2017, have attempted to weigh other potential factors such as environmental causes and genetic triggers, along with SSRI impacts, but still agree that SSRI drug use does increase risk. The website Drugwatch.com lists SSRI drug use to be linked with several birth defects, including cleft palate, heart defects, babies born missing parts of the skull, intestines protruding outside the body, and others, including increased risk of autism. It stands to reason that if a drug being taken to alter the brain chemistry of a mother can cause physical defects, it can also be negatively impacting the development of the fetal brain.
Evidence versus speculation
With all of this documented evidence showing an increased risk of autism linked to anti-depressant medication, it begs the question, why is this not more well known? Why is this not the first thing being brought up whenever this topic of discussion is broached? It would seem as though it has gone under the radar, or simply been pushed under the rug.
As discussed earlier, the false information campaign that created the anti-vaccine movement, completely railroaded the conversation about autism and subverted the good-faith investigations into other more realistic possibilities linked to its causation. Whether this was by design, meant to distract the public from the studies showing the increased risk and linkage to SSRI medication, or if this just coincidentally resulted in such, the final impact remains: people seem mostly oblivious to these studies.
A new level of heightened scrutiny needs to return to this issue. Women need to be aware of the potential risks of this medication and weigh the risks against those of depression during a pregnancy. These risks should be discussed with their doctors, and doctors need to be up front with them about the research and what that research has shown. While more research is definitely needed in this matter, and more repeated studies and results confirmed over time, in the interim the knowledge we have already gleaned from the studies conducted should inform the judgments being made by pregnant women today.
These are important decisions, ones that could mean the difference between a healthy child and one that will have lifelong developmental issues impacting their every waking moment of existence.