Rise in Autism Travels Through Generations

Synthetic hormones prescribed in the 1960s for fertility may have endangered multiple generations, perhaps even causing the recent autism explosion, according to new epigenetic research.

| March/April 2014

Jill Escher, a dark-haired dynamo of smarts and stamina, was gently stopping her 14-year-old son, Jonny, from ripping up the mail. He had just emptied spice bottles on the table to make finger paints. Upstairs, her seven-year-old daughter, Sophie, was sending out incomprehensible cries. It could mean that Sophie had opened a box of crayons, eaten some and rubbed the rest into the carpet, or smeared a tube of toothpaste on the mirror. And while Escher tried to calm Sophie, Jonny could be tossing his iPad over the fence, tearing all the ivories off the piano, chewing the furniture, or wandering out into traffic.

For Escher, the anguish of autism is doubled. Both Jonny and Sophie have been diagnosed with autism, the fast-growing category of neurological disease afflicting one in every 88 U.S. children. The Escher children’s intellectual development is stalled at an early pre-school level, and they need constant care and protection.

For years, Escher and her husband, Christopher, worried about what could have gone wrong. Why would two of their three children wind up autistic, defying the odds? Was it their genes? Their environment? Their food? The couple tried to hunt down any health problems in their lineage but found none. A glass of wine while pregnant? Paint fumes? Pollution from freeways? New studies appear with regularity, suggesting causes but offering no definitive answers. “To be perfectly honest, I had given up trying to find out. I felt I would die never knowing what happened to my children. No one could tell me,” Escher says.

But three years ago, Jill Escher had an epiphany, one that now subsumes her waking hours and nighttime dreams. After prodding her mother for clues from her past, Escher discovered some hidden history: Her mother had sought help conceiving at a fertility clinic. As she grew in her mother’s womb, Escher was bombarded with synthetic hormones and other drugs.

Now Escher’s dogged quest to unravel why this happened to her children has drawn the attention of scientists, and may ultimately lead to a greater understanding of how prescription drugs—and perhaps chemicals in the environment—may secretly and subtly harm the health of generations to come. “The rise in autism has been with us for more than two decades, and we have little to show about what’s causing it,” Escher says. “We have many hundreds of thousands of functionally disabled people who didn’t exist before, and we have our heads in the sand.”

The transgenerational effects of synthetic hormones

Scientists know that some chemicals can alter developing embryos and fetuses, which can lead to disease later in life. But in recent years, they’ve learned that the damage doesn’t necessarily stop there. Something a pregnant woman is exposed to may alter not just her children, but also her grand-children—and possibly even subsequent generations.