Children born to women with systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) – the most common form of lupus – are twice as likely to have an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) as children born to mothers without the disease. That increased risk is statistically significant, but still small, according to a study presented at the American College of Rheumatology’s annual meeting in late October.

“The risk is about 1 percent,” says lead study author Evelyne Vinet, MD, an assistant professor in the department of rheumatology at McGill University Health Centre in Montreal. “So I would never say women with lupus shouldn’t get pregnant or that they should be alarmed by this.”

SLE – or simply lupus – is an inflammatory, autoimmune disease that can affect joints and almost every organ, including skin, kidneys, heart and lungs, as well as the central nervous system. Common symptoms include fatigue, joint pain and rash. It is more common in women than men, and typically develops when a person is in her 20s or 30s – prime childbearing years.   

Dr. Vinet and her team analyzed data from a Canadian registry that collected information on all women with a lupus diagnosis who gave birth in a hospital between 1989 and 2009. It included a total of 509 women with lupus who gave birth to 719 children, and their average age was 30. They were compared with 5,824 randomly selected women without lupus who gave birth to more than 8,400 children.

The researchers found that children born to women with lupus had a 1.4 percent risk of being diagnosed with an ASD, compared with a 0.6 percent risk  among children born to the other mothers. Looking at a smaller subset of children born to mothers with lupus, the researchers found that exposure to lupus medication during pregnancy was rare.

This is the first study to look for an increased risk of autism in children of mothers with lupus. Animal studies have shown that certain autoantibodies and cytokines (which are present in women with lupus) can affect the brain development of offspring and lead to behavioral irregularities. Previous studies have also indicated lupus patients may be more likely to have children with a learning disability.

The researchers were not able to assess participants’ disease severity in this study to see if it affected ASD risk, and Dr. Vinet says she would like to do that.