Despite decades of research, the exact reasons why Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) happens is unknown. No medication, illegal drug or alcohol is known to be associated with the majority of ASD cases.
- If you’re reading this because you used drugs, alcohol or medications during pregnancy, the risk of ASD specifically is still less than 12%. (Parental drug or alcohol use is much more likely to cause neurological consequences outside of an ASD diagnosis).
- If you’re reading this because your child was diagnosed with ASD, know that there is not a singular “cause” of autism. As with addiction, parents tend to focus on “Why?!”, when processing guilt or depressive feelings and finding a deeper sense of peace is always more helpful.
Is autism caused by: Illegal Drugs | Second-Hand Meth Smoke | Past Drug Use | Paternal Drug Use | Medications | Alcohol | Fetal Alcohol Syndrome | Alcohol While Breastfeeding + Getting Help
(See also the do they drug test baby after delivery article).
Can drug use cause autism?
There is no medication or illegal drug taken before or during pregnancy that in itself causes babies to be born with ASD.
(If you’re asking about personal drug use, ASD is not acquired through drug use after birth. Autism symptoms are usually noticed by age three).
Certain genes are likely required for ASD and are triggered by various environmental factors that raise the risk of developing ASD.
As an example of environmental factors, the risk of ASD is higher for children with older parents, as well as those with mothers in worse general health before pregnancy. In fact, a woman’s age and health seems to play a more critical role than the drugs she takes.
Can you get autism from illegal drugs?
- While that is statistically a huge increase, almost 90% of mothers that used cocaine during pregnancy still did not have a child with ASD.
The most recent research shows no increase of risk of ASD with marijuana use or opioid use during pregnancy. (Opioids include heroin and prescription painkillers like OxyCotin, Vicodin or fentanyl).
Of course, illegal drugs used during pregnancy are harmful to the baby, even though they don’t cause ASD. Many issues that arise from drug use during pregnancy have similar symptoms as ASD, such as speech delay or behavioral problems.
The consequences of drug use during pregnancy depend on:
- Drug(s) used
- Amount used
- During what stage of the pregnancy the drug(s) were used
- General mental health of the mother
- And…“Other” – I’ve heard of hundreds of stories where mother’s used illegal drugs or abused prescriptions (sometimes heavily and throughout pregnancy) and the child developed without any issues
No amount of illegal drug or prescription abuse is safe for a developing baby. To change the course of your life and the life of your child, get help now. (Seriously, you can go to treatment today).
Can autism be caused by meth or second-hand meth smoke?
No. There is no link between methamphetamine use or methamphetamine smoke and ASD.
However, babies exposed to meth in the womb are nearly three times more likely to have cognitive problems (like lower IQ). Also, children exposed to meth smoke are usually in dangerous living situations including witnessing or experiencing physical abuse. (See meth addiction side effects article).
Consequences of Exposure to Meth in the Womb and During Childhood
|Noticed At Birth||Noticed During Development|
|– Preterm labor|
– Short and long term growth defects
– Cardiac and cardiovascular anomalies
|– Behavioral problems|
– Emotional and social effects
– Deficits in attention, memory and motivation
– Anxious/depressed symptoms
Reading this may be difficult if you’ve used meth or been around meth smoke while pregnant, but you still have a choice to get help now. It’s not “too late”! You and your baby deserve peace and happiness.
Can former drug use cause autism?
No. Since drug use during pregnancy does not cause autism, past drug use or relapse during pregnancy does not either.
Does paternal drug use cause autism?
No. There is no current evidence linking a father’s drug or medication use prior (or during) conception to any increased risk of ASD.
However, paternal drug use can cause negative impacts. One study tested on rats links cocaine use at the time of conception with learning disabilities and memory loss, but only in sons (males).
More research on the impact of paternal drug use is needed, especially since a father’s age is known to increase the risk of ASD too.
However, if paternal drug use was the cause of ASD, researchers would have discovered that by now. The answer is just not that simple. Most cases of ASD do not involve paternal drug or medication use at all.
Do certain medications cause autism?
The only medications known to increase the risk of ASD are used for epilepsy or as a muscle relaxer in anesthesia. For example, the anti-seizure drug valproate increases the risk of autism from 1.9% to 4.4%.
Previous research suggested antidepressant and antipsychotic medications may increase risk, but the latest studies disprove this connection. It’s the severity of underlying mental health issues, not the medications, that increases the risk of ASD.
Please try not to worry if you have a mental health issue. The overwhelming majority of mothers even with severe mental health diagnosis do not have babies with ASD.
What is important now is stopping any drug or alcohol use that may be associated and talking to your doctor about medication, which may be harmful to the fetus even though it doesn’t increase the risk of ASD.
Does alcohol during pregnancy cause autism?
Alcohol has been shown to have no impact on the risk for ASD, but can cause other neurologic issues like Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.
(See also the autism and alcoholism article).
Does fetal alcohol syndrome cause autism?
No. Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Disorder (FASD) and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are two separate disorders.
The diseases present with similar symptoms. Both are developmental disorders impacting the brain and social interactions. Some adoptive parents report a misdiagnosis of ASD before getting an accurate FASD diagnosis.
Here are some key differences:
|Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Disorder||Autism Spectrum Disorder|
|Able to relate to others||May find it difficult to relate to others in a meaningful way|
|Verbal communication may be delayed but not commonly significantly impaired||Difficulty or delay in verbal and non-verbal communication is common, usually the first sign|
|Difficulties begin at birth||Difficulties may begin after a period of normal growth|
|Echolalia (repeating words or phrases) and ritualistic behaviors not common||Echolalia and ritualistic behaviors are common|
|Occurs as often in males as in females||Occurs in males 4 times as often as in females|
|Caused by drinking during pregnancy||Cause is unknown, though likely involve genes|
How much alcohol is safe during pregnancy?
While friends may downplay the risks, citing cases of drinking that didn’t lead to issues for the child, there is no known safe level of alcohol consumption during pregnancy.
- If you can’t go without occasional drinking, therapy will help you uncover why.
- If you feel physically sick when you try to stop drinking, please seek medical detox at a facility like JourneyPure or at a hospital. Alcohol withdrawal can be deadly even without pregnancy complications.
Get help as soon as possible.
Can drinking alcohol while breastfeeding cause autism?
No. Though alcohol does pass through to breast milk, there is no known link between breastfed alcohol and ASD.
More likely, alcohol can decrease milk production and impact the babies sleep. With regular exposure, alcohol in breast milk has shown to impact early motor development and abstract reasoning.
PS – “Pumping and dumping” does not rid alcohol from breastmilk. The alcohol in the breast milk mirrors the mother’s blood alcohol level and only goes down with time.
Also, besure to calculate your servings correctly. A serving of alcohol is 12 oz of beer, 1.5 oz of liquor or 5 oz of wine. Wine glasses hold multiple servings and beer in a bottle usually has 18 oz.
What should I do if I can’t stop using drugs or alcohol during or after pregnancy?
You’re reading this because you know that your life, your child’s future and your relationship with your child is in danger right now.
You know you need to get help.
Now, it’s time to reach out.
JourneyPure.com doctors follow rigorous sourcing guidelines and cite only trustworthy sources of information, including peer-reviewed journals, count records, academic organizations, highly regarded nonprofit organizations, government reports and their own expertise with decades in the fields and their own personal recovery.
Christensen, J., Grønborg, T. K., Sørensen, M. J., Schendel, D., Parner, E. T., Pedersen, L. H., & Vestergaard, M. (2013). Prenatal valproate exposure and risk of autism spectrum disorders and childhood autism. JAMA, 309(16), 1696–1703. https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.2013.2270
Davis, E., Fennoy, I., Laraque, D., Kanem, N., Brown, G., & Mitchell, J. (1992). Autism and developmental abnormalities in children with perinatal cocaine exposure. Journal of the National Medical Association, 84(4), 315–319.
Diaz, S. D., Smith, L. M., LaGasse, L. L., Derauf, C., Newman, E., Shah, R., Arria, A., Huestis, M. A., Della Grotta, S., Dansereau, L. M., Neal, C., & Lester, B. M. (2014). Effects of prenatal methamphetamine exposure on behavioral and cognitive findings at 7.5 years of age. The Journal of pediatrics, 164(6), 1333–1338. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpeds.2014.01.053
Gallagher, C., McCarthy, F. P., Ryan, R. M., & Khashan, A. S. (2018). Maternal Alcohol Consumption During Pregnancy and the Risk of Autism Spectrum Disorders in Offspring: A Retrospective Analysis of the Millennium Cohort Study. Journal of autism and developmental disorders, 48(11), 3773–3782. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-018-3626-6
Hagberg, K. W., Robijn, A. L., & Jick, S. (2018). Maternal depression and antidepressant use during pregnancy and the risk of autism spectrum disorder in offspring. Clinical epidemiology, 10, 1599–1612. https://doi.org/10.2147/CLEP.S180618
Janecka, M., Kodesh, A., Levine, S., & Lusskin, S. (2018). Association of Autism Spectrum Disorder With Prenatal Exposure to Medication Affecting Neurotransmitter Systems. JAMA Psychiatry, 75(12). https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapsychiatry/fullarticle/2709651
LaFee, S. (2019, December 23). Measuring Mutations in Sperm May Reveal Risk for Autism in Future Children. UC San Diego Health. https://health.ucsd.edu/news/releases/Pages/2019-12-23-measuring-mutations-in-sperm-reveals-autism-risks.aspx
University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. (2017, February 23). Sons of cocaine-using fathers have profound memory impairments. ScienceDaily. Retrieved April 20, 2021 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/02/170223114801.htm
Yang F, Chen J, Miao M, et alRisk of autism spectrum disorder in offspring following paternal use of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors before conception: a population-based cohort studyBMJ Open 2017;7:e016368. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2017-016368
(2018, January 10). Fetal alcohol syndrome. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/fetal-alcohol-syndrome/symptoms-causes/syc-20352901
(2020, September 25). Data & Statistics on Autism Spectrum Disorder. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/data.html
All content is for informational purposes only. No material on this site, whether from our doctors or the community, is a substitute for seeking personalized professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never disregard advice from a qualified healthcare professional or delay seeking advice because of something you read on this website.
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