Autism and Old Dads

September 7, 2006

Yesterday a flurry of articles announced a link between older fathers and autistic children. A study of Israeli children revealed:

“The older the age of the father at the time of birth, the higher the chances of the offspring to have autism,” Reichenberg says. “In fathers who were 40 years or older, the risk for autism was almost six times higher than in the offspring of fathers who were younger than 30 years of age.”

The mother’s age didn’t seem to matter.

How often do you hear that last line? Not much. I was intrigued by the revelation that “until a few years ago, scientists who study childhood disorders tended to focus on risks related to a mother’s age.”

As a mother who had her first child at age 35, I was subjected to a barrage of materials and messages that conveyed I was past my freshness dating. The hospital separated out the 35+ mothers-to-be and shunted us through a different program that encouraged more invasive testing to detect possible abnormalities. While intellectually, I understood why they would arrange their prenatal services this way, emotionally, it felt awful. Like I was old, and had done something wrong, and that my baby was going to have problems.

I wonder if, as researchers turn their attention to probabilities associated with a father’s age, if men might begin to experience the ticking of the proverbial biological clock. Heretofore, they’ve proceded blithely into old age with the attitude that their sperm are forever young. Like Hugh Hefner or Donald Trump.

The study also isn’t clear enough to help parents decide whether it’s too risky to have children based on the father’s age, Newschaffer says. But he believes that this study and other studies of older fathers do offer a message: “Probably like females, males have a reproductive age.” And that’s how “we should start thinking about it.”

In another article, it was discussed that this correlation may have nothing to do with mutations and old sperm. Another possibility is that the dads in question may have reproduced later in life because they were mildly autistic themselves, and therefore took longer to find a partner and start a family.

Who knows? I’m glad when researchers are able to find any clues about autism, because it brings us closer to understanding why the number of cases continues to grow.