A study has found that women with an autoimmune disease are up to three times more likely to have a child with autism than the general population. The autoimmune diseases included in this study were coeliac disease, type 1 diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis.

Coeliac disease is an autoimmune disease whereby ingestion of gluten causes damage to the lining of the small intestine. This can cause digestive problems such as bloating and diarrhea, however many cases of coeliac disease cause no digestive symptoms at all, yet damage still occurs to the body. In type 1 diabetes the immune system attacks the insulin producing cells of the pancreas, leaving the body unable to manufacture sufficient insulin. In rheumatoid arthritis the immune system attacks the joints, causing pain, immobility and disfigurement.

Autoimmune diseases are extremely common and they are more common in women than men. Other examples of autoimmune diseases are Hashimoto’s thyroiditis (causing an under active thyroid), Graves’ disease (causing an over active thyroid), ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease (affecting the digestive tract), multiple sclerosis, lupus and others.

Research carried out at the Johns Hopkins University collected data on 3,325 Danish children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. The children were born between 1993 and 2004. The data showed that women with an autoimmune disease are more likely to have a child diagnosed with autism. The increased risk for mothers with type 1 diabetes was a little less than double; for rheumatoid arthritis it was 1.5 times, but for coeliac disease it was more than three times greater.

Autoimmune disease causes a great deal of inflammation and tissue damage in the body; the inflammation can affect the developing foetus while in its mother’s uterus. Women with coeliac disease are also more prone to giving birth prematurely and having a small birth weight baby. Both of those factors are associated with an increased risk of autism.

Autism is thought to be an immune system disorder (rather than a brain disorder), and this study further confirms this belief. Approximately 80 percent of your immune system is located in your digestive tract; therefore digestive problems affect your immunity as a whole and your child’s immunity if you become pregnant.

Luckily there is a lot that can be done to correct immune system function and overcome autoimmune disease. This particular study referred to undiagnosed or untreated coeliac disease. If a coeliac sticks to a gluten free diet 100 percent of the time and addresses nutritional deficiencies that go hand in hand with the condition, their children are not at increased risk of autism.

We actually recommend that anybody with an autoimmune condition avoids all gluten and cow’s milk, regardless of the specific type of autoimmune disease. These diet changes, combined with the right nutritional supplements are extremely successful in the treatment of autoimmune disease.

Source: Association of Family History of Autoimmune Diseases and Autism Spectrum Disorders. Pediatrics July 5, 2009