Why the COVID-19 Pandemic Might Actually Decrease Risk of Autism

With the spread of the novel coronavirus, the United States (as well as numerous other countries around the world) have established quarantine and stay-at-home orders. People are limiting social interactions, factory activity has been slowed down or even halted in certain regions, and transport and commerce have decreased significantly. According to some scientists studying the pandemic, this economic slowdown "paradoxically is of benefit to the future risk of autism spectrum disorders (ASD)".

The relationship between economic slowdown and ASD arises from the factor of air pollution. Air pollution is a major public health issue and significantly increases the risk of mortality in a wide range of diseases (including but not limited to respiratory and cardiovascular diseases). In fact, an expecting mother’s exposure to air pollution actually increases the risk of developing ASD in newborns in what is known as a dose-response relationship (Kerin et al. 2018; Chun et al. 2020; Dutheil et al. 2020). With hundreds of millions of pregnancies each year, it is a huge challenge to truly limit an expecting mother's exposure to air pollution during pregnancy.

However, the COVID-19 outbreak has actually made a difference in the issue of air pollutant exposure. As a result of the quarantine orders that were issued in response to the virus, a dramatic reduction in air pollution has been noted in various countries. A study in China actually found that air pollutants such as NO2 and fine particulates were significantly reduced in the country following the economic slowdown of the virus (Chen et al. 2020). Specifically, during the lockdown period in the city of Wuhan, China, there was a massive 90% decrease of NO2 levels, along with a 40-60% decrease in NO2 levels in the rest of the country (Le et al. 2020).

It can be inferred that air pollutant levels will rise again once full economic activity is resumed (whether they will fully restore to pre-existing levels is unknown); however, this data reveals that the outbreak of this virus might actually host some positive outcome in newborns born during this time period. Since millions of expecting mothers experienced a dramatic decrease in their exposure to air pollutants during this time, there may be a decreased risk of ASD in this population. Scientists also speculate that other positive effects might be seen as a result of this reduction of air pollution, including a decrease in the prevalence of low birth weights, preterm births, stillbirths, preeclampsia, and gestational diabetes. Ultimately, there have been dramatic changes in the way that we live and operate this year, and though the effects of these changes are not yet known, we can be hopeful that there might be some positive effects seen in babies born during this pandemic.

Dutheil, F., Bourdel, N., & Comptour, A. The Coronavirus Might Be Paradoxically Beneficial on the Risk of Autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 1-3. doi: 10.1007/s10803-020-04621-1

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