Autoimmunity occurs when the immune system mistakenly targets the body’s own cells, tissues, or organs as opposed to foreign antigens invading the body. These self-destructive antibodies create inflammation processes ultimately causing organ damage. Autoimmunity is a result of defects in the B and/or T cells of the immune system and is believed to result from the interplay of genetics, infections, and other environmental exposures.
Mothers with abnormal autoimmune antibodies have a greater risk of poor pregnancy outcomes. There is mounting evidence that shows a mother with autoimmune antibodies is more likely to produce anti-brain antibodies that can cross the placenta and attack the fetal brain, inducing fetal brain inflammation. One study shows mothers of children with autism are 4 times more likely to carry brain reactive antibodies than mothers of typically developing children. Mothers with brain-reactive antibodies were also likely to have an increased prevalence of autoimmune diseases, especially rheumatoid arthritis and systemic lupus erythematosus.
Mother’s with celiac disease have a particularly high risk of bearing children with autism or other chronic illness. Celiac disease, a genetic disorder of the small intestine triggered by dietary exposure to gluten (a protein found in wheat), is associated with inflammation, diarrhea, malabsorption, and other gastrointestinal issues. Untreated celiac disease may result in impaired fertility and adverse pregnancy outcomes from autoimmune related mechanisms or nutrient deficiencies. According to this study, “Celiac disease, especially if untreated, appears to increase the risk of repeated miscarriages and premature deliveries, and impaired fetal growth with reduced birthweight.” Additionally, the rate of cesarean delivery was increased if the parents had celiac disease.
Other autoimmune diseases that appear to increase the risk of ASD in offspring include lupus erythematosus, rheumatoid arthritis, and type 1 and type 2 Diabetes. Women with rheumatoid arthritis were 80% more likely to have a child with ASD, while children born to diabetic mothers are 4 times more likely to develop autism.