The cause of autism has long been a source of mystery and debate within the medical community, but we're now one step closer to detecting the disorder early. Autism diagnosis is a touchy subject, but one that must be addressed, as nearly one in every 88 children in the U.S. has the developmental disorder.

We may not know precisely what causes it, but thanks to researchers at Yale University, we now have greater insight into how the disorder first appears. For clues to autism risk, the researchers suggest, look no further than the placenta, an organ that provides nourishment to a growing fetus in the womb.

The latest research, published this week in Biological Psychiatry provides more evidence of a biological link between abnormal formation of the placenta and autism, as Dr. Harvey Kliman explains.

“[The placenta] is like a check engine light,” Kliman said in an interview with Healthline. “It doesn’t say exactly what’s wrong but it does say hey, here’s what's going on.”  

In conjunction with the Mind Institute at the University of California, Davis, Kliman and colleagues compared 117 placentas from families at risk of having children with autism to a control group of 100 normal placentas. They found that the at-risk placentas had many more trophoblast inclusions, or abnormal placental folds and cell growths, than those in the control group. These placental markers are excellent indicators of autism risk.

Placentas with trophoblast inclusions lack the symmetry found in the blood vessel "trees" of normal placentas. The abnormal folding pattern is similar to a real tree’s branches, but instead of growing out evenly, they can grow backward, into the placenta. Kliman compares this phenomenon to a pit in the skin, much like a belly button.

“There’s something about these [at-risk] families biologically that is different, and the biological basis for this is very clear,” Kilman said. “What’s causing it is very clearly associated with a whole host of genetic abnormalities, not just autism.” He hopes that routinely examining the placenta will be one of the first steps doctors take to make a determination about childhood developmental disorders going forward.

What Does This Research Mean for My Family?

Most autism diagnoses can only be made when the child begins exhibiting autistic behaviors, typically between 3 and 5 years of age. By this time, parents are struggling to help their children grow and develop. But armed with the knowledge of their child’s condition at birth, parents can be better prepared for the challenges ahead and can intervene early.

“Those families could be more vigilant,” Kliman said. Being aware of autism sooner gives parents more time to engage in developmental exercises with their children, he says. This could provide families, pediatricians, and psychologists with valuable time to conduct social and occupational therapy.  

And suppose your child does not have autism. The research is still valuable, Kliman says. “Even if we say to a family your kid [might have] autism but it turns out they don’t, the attentive parenting is fantastic for kids. No kid has ever been hurt by more attention from their parents.”

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