Two recent studies suggest that some cases of autism may (and I stress may) be related to the mother’s use of certain antidepressant medications during pregnancy. The most recent study is out of Sweden, where national health statistics make large population studies feasible.
The results should be interpreted with caution, however. It will prove difficult to separate out whether it’s the mother’s clinical depression itself, or the drugs used to treat it, that may be increasing the risk of autism. After all, women generally don’t take antidepressants unless they’re clinically depressed. It will be some time before we have a definitive answer, if ever. In the meantime, women who are clinically depressed should discuss the risks and benefits of antidepressant drugs with their physician if they anticipate becoming pregnant.
One final note: the use of antidepressants can’t account for much of the overall rise of autism, because so few pregnant women actually need and use antidepressants. The Swedish study points out that although any woman who uses antidepressants during pregnancy may be doubling the risk of autism in her child, the use of antidepressants during pregnancy probably accounts for less than 1% of all cases of autism in the whole population.