There may be a strong link between autism and congenital heart disease, according to a new study published in the journal Pediatrics. According to a report by Harvard Medical School authored by three PhD’s, the study is the first to confirm that people born with congenital heart disease (CHD) have a 33% increased chance of receiving an autism diagnosis. The study also found that the risks of autism were highest among children with less serious forms of CHD, though children with more complex types were also at elevated risk for autism. At the same time, the study leaves unanswered questions about the reasons for the connection between autism and CHD, and measures health care providers can take to help.
According to Harvard Medical School’s report, studies have found that there may be shared genetic pathways that impact heart and brain development, but may be expressed as either autism or congenital heart disease. Research has also found that children CHD are exposed to changes in brain maturation, and are vulnerable to early brain injuries due to altered blood flow in the brain that occurs in utero. These injuries may damage brain systems that are essential for development and learning, and may place children with congenital heart disease at higher risk of developing autism-like traits.
This research is raising awareness about the need to screen for autism in children with CHD as soon as possible. Guidelines for routine neurodevelopmental evaluation and treatment of people with CHD have been provided by the American Heart Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics. The authors of the Harvard Medical School post recommend that autism identification of early autism symptoms be carried out as early as 18 months, or whenever there is a concern.
“Once atypical behaviors are identified, prompt interventions to foster social communication, positive parent-child interaction, and social behaviors can be initiated through Early Intervention or other in-home or community-based agencies,” the authors write. “We believe that a proactive approach will lead to improved developmental trajectories and better quality of life for those with CHD and their families.”