Maternal Exposure to Childhood Abuse, Mate Selection, and Autism Spectrum Disorder in Offspring
To examine possible reasons for the association between childhood abuse and ASD by addressing three questions: 1) Are women who experienced childhood abuse more likely to select mates with high levels of autistic traits? 2) If so, is this association independent of women’s own autistic traits? 3) Is the association of maternal abuse and offspring ASD explained by parents’ autistic traits?
Methods: A nested case-control study in the Nurses' Health Study II (N= 222 cases, N=854 controls). ASD based on maternal report, validated with the Autism Diagnostic Interview-Revised in a subset. Parental autistic traits assessed with the Social Responsiveness Scale (SRS). Odds ratios (OR) and 95% confidence intervals (CI) of paternal high autistic traits and ASD estimated with logistic regression.
Maternal childhood abuse was strongly associated with high paternal autistic traits (severe sexual abuse, OR=3.98, 95% CI=1.29, 12.27; severe physical/emotional abuse, OR=2.24, 95% CI=1.30, 3.88). Maternal childhood abuse predicted offspring ASD (severe combined abuse, RR=3.62, 95% CI=1.80, 7.28). Paternal autistic traits accounted for 21% of the association between maternal childhood abuse and offspring risk of ASD (adjusted RR=2.97, 95% CI=1.45, 6.09).
Childhood abuse may affect women’s mate selection. At the same time, parental autistic traits alone do not account for the association of maternal childhood abuse with offspring ASD, as these explained only a small portion of the association of maternal abuse with offspring ASD.