In my family my mother has diabetes, I have Multiple Sclerosis, my husband has asthma, an aunt and a grandmother have celiac disease, and my youngest son has autism and multiple food allergies as well as celiac disease. A geneticist would have a field day with us I have often pondered the underlying genetics behind this wide variety of family conditions and diseases, many of which are considered or suspected to be autoimmune in nature. I know that other families wonder the same thing such as author and parent, Kristyn Crow, who has written many blog posts on this very topic. Crow, who has one son with autism and two sons with juvenile diabetes, wrote a post a couple of years ago entitled, "Do You Have BOTH Juvenile Diabetes and Autism in Your Family?" which elicited many reader responses from parents who had a similar situation.
So maybe you hear about cases where diabetes and autism run in the same family or even about children who have both autism and diabetes. Can't we chalk all this up to coincidence? Or is the potential link between diabetes and autism worthy of investigation?
Doctors Freeman, Roberts, and Daneman decided that this possible link between the two disorders was important enough to conduct a study. In 2005 these researchers looked at the prevalence of autism spectrum disorder in 984 children with type 1 diabetes attending the Diabetes Clinic at The Hospital for Sick Children, Toronto. They concluded that the incidence of autism spectrum disorder in children with type 1 diabetes from their sample was greater than that of the general population. The researchers, however, did caution not to generalize their findings due to small sample size and the absence of specific autism surveillance measures used for all children attending the Diabetes Clinic. You can view this study entitled, "Type 1 Diabetes and Autism: Is there a link?" published by the American Diabetes Association to draw your own conclusions.
One suggestion made by the authors of the Diabetes Clinic study was that some sort of common autoimmune pathogenesis was underlying their results. This is a hypotheses shared by some researchers as well as by some families who have multiple autoimmune disorders within their family constellation.
In addition to finding a higher incidence of autism in children with juvenile diabetes, researchers have also found that children who have mothers with an autoimmune disease were at a higher risk for developing an autism spectrum disorder than the general population. In a 2009 Psychiatric Newsreport (Newspaper of the American Psychiatric Association)staff writer Jun Yan reports on the "Relationship Found between Autism and Autoimmune Disorders." Specifically, Yan cites a new study which shows that if your family history includes type 1 diabetes mellitus,celiac disease, or rheumatoid arthritis, your child may be at higher risk for developing an autism spectrum disorder.
A group of American and Danish researchers had looked at medical data from children born in Denmark from between 1993 and 2004. They then examined any autoimmune diseases of parents or siblings of these children. Of the 689,196 children whose medical records were examined, 3,325 had a diagnosis of an autism spectrum disorder. Yan reports that: "Family history of type 1 diabetes, with parentsand siblings included, was associated with a statistically significantincrease in the risk of the childhood autism diagnosis."
The original study can be found on the July 6 online edition of Pediatrics.
It is important to note that although both studies showing a link between diabetes and autism may have "statistically significant" findings, there is not enough evidence to cause undue alarm. The majority of families who have diabetes in their family will not have a child with autism. So it is important to look at these studies or any research study for that matter, with a critical eye.
As a parent of a child with autism, the biggest conclusion I come to after looking at such research is that perhaps we need further investigation into what triggers autoimmune disorders in general. Are these various disorders somehow linked? Are they genetic? How much do environmental factors play a part in this? There are still so many unanswered questions.
What about you? What are your thoughts on this topic? If you have diabetes, do autoimmune disorders run in your family? Do any of you have a child who has autism? Talk to us. We want to hear your story!
If any of you happen to have a child who has a disability including a learning disability and/or autism please know that you can find support right here on Health Central.You may find me writing about my experiences parenting and teaching my son on either ADHD Central or Friends of Quinn.
Freeman SJ, Roberts W, Daneman D: Type 1 diabetes and autism: is there a link? Diabetes Care 28:925-926, 2005
Yan, J: Relationship found between autism and autoimmune disorders Psychiatric News Vol 44, Number 16, 2009