Lead author Andrea Roberts, research associate in the Harvard School of Public Health's Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences in Boston, said women who experienced the most serious abuse had the highest likelihood of having a child with autism -- three-and-a-half times more than women who were not abused.
"Our study identifies a completely new risk factor for autism," Roberts said in a statement. "Further research to understand how a woman's experience of abuse is associated with autism in her children may help us better understand the causes of autism and identify preventable risk factors."
The study authors examined data from more than 50,000 women enrolled in the Nurses' Health Study II.
The researchers found it was not just women exposed to the most serious levels of abuse who had higher risk of having a child with autism, but also a large number of women who experienced moderate abuse.
About 2 percent of women reported the most serious abuse, but women in the top 25 percent of abuse severity -- which included mostly women who experienced more moderate levels of abuse -- were 60 percent more likely to have a child with autism compared with women who did not experience abuse.
The findings were published in the journal Psychiatry.