Older dads and autism

Study: Don't automatically "blame the mother" for the medical risks of later parenthood.

Published September 6, 2006 2:57AM (EDT)

According to Tuesday's Washington Post, Israeli researchers -- in the "most rigorous" such analysis to date -- have found "a significant relationship" between rates of autism disorders among children and the age of their fathers: "When fathers are in their thirties, children have about 1 1/2 times the risk of developing autism of children of fathers in their teens and twenties. Compared with the offspring of the youngest fathers, children of fathers in their forties have more than five times the risk of developing autism, and children of fathers in their fifties have more than nine times the risk." That's controlling for other variables such as the mother's age and socioeconomic status; as another pertinent leveling factor, Israel has universal health insurance and access to care, prenatal and otherwise. (You can read a brief abstract of the article in the latest issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry.)

National Public Radio reports that there are at least two ways to explain these findings. One possibility, according to Craig Newschaffer, professor and chairman of epidemiology and biostatistics at the Drexel University School of Public Health in Philadelphia, is that (NPR's paraphrase) "older men who carry genes associated with autism are, for some unknown reason, more likely to pass along the risk from those genes." Another is that sperm mutations are more common with age; these could lead to problems such as autism.

There's nothing "happy" about this news, but in a certain way, it's welcome. For one thing, of course, as the Post notes, it "presents an intriguing new avenue for research" into autism. For another, the old avenue generally runs back to ... the mother. Not that that's invalid research in and of itself, but that often-lopsided focus (odd, considering the whole two-to-tango thing) does help perpetuate the notion, both medical and civilian, that birth defects, developmental problems and the like -- not to mention fertility issues to begin with, which I discussed in the same light here -- are the "fault" of women who, whether they're "picky" or "career-focused" or just plain not paying attention, "wait too long" to have children. In other words -- and I say this smirk-free, with no intention to reassign any sort of blame -- research such as this helps confirm that it's not just our eggs that can "spoil." And, ideally, prompts us to think about such matters in a much broader, more useful, paradigm. "Probably like females, males have a reproductive age," Newschaffer observed to NPR, and that's how 'we should start thinking about it.'"

By Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of BreakupGirl.net. She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

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