The reason women with lupus have this increased risk also needs to be determined, she adds. “The ‘why’ could be antibodies,” Dr. Vinet says. “It also may be exposure to cytokines, or when there is inflammation that might affect the brain development of the fetus. There might also be some genetic predisposition shared between these disorders, but this is something to investigate further.”

Lisa Sammaritano, MD, an associate attending rheumatologist at Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City, says this is an important study from a research perspective, because identifying risk is the first step to understanding what is happening and how to address it. She, too, says women with lupus who want to get pregnant shouldn’t worry too much about these findings.  

“I don’t think anyone would say lupus is the cause of autism, but I think people look at it as a diagnosis that has a lot of risk factors,” Dr. Sammaritano says. “Yes it is statistically significant, but it is really still a very, very low risk of having a child with autism.”

Future studies are needed to confirm the findings, she says. “I think it will be followed by directed studies looking for the presence of specific antibodies in lupus patients.”

She adds that, by far, the greater risk to children of women with lupus is preterm delivery. Studies show that 10 to 30 percent of patients with lupus deliver a premature or small baby, and premature infants are at risk of health problems, including learning and behavioral disorders.

But Dr. Sammaritano says this is a risk that doctors know how to help combat in patients with lupus. “We can improve overall outcomes by planning ahead of time, doing proper monitoring throughout the pregnancy and providing treatment if indicated,” she says. “Knowledge really is power. It’s important to plan ahead of time and to be educated, to discuss it with your doctor and to keep things in perspective."