A sweeping multinational study of 5.7 million children found that advanced maternal and paternal age put children at an increased risk for autism. The study, which was published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, also found that teen moms were more likely to have a child on the spectrum than women in their twenties. Autism rates were 66 percent higher if the father was over 50, and 28 percent higher if the father was over 40, than if a dad was in his twenties. The risks were increased by 15 percent for women over 40 and 18 percent for teen moms. Researchers also discovered that the rates of autism increased if there was more than a 10-year age gap between the parents.
So what’s the link between parental age and the increased risk of having a child with ASD? Well, the obvious conclusion is that, as we age, our sperm and eggs aren’t quite as healthy, creating more mutations. It’s also possible that men who don’t have children until they’re in their fifties may have some kind of undiagnosed ASD that may have made it difficult to find a partner earlier in life. As for the teen mothers, the thought is that they may not be taking care of their health as well as they should.
Okay, so what does this all mean? Well, really, nothing. Sure, maybe it points to genetic mutations as a cause for autism, but so what? The reality is that, even in light of these numbers, most children born to older parents do not have ASD. Should I repeat that? Most children born to older parents do not have ASD. Are some children going to be at increased risk? Yes, but the odds are that they will be perfectly healthy.
More important, it’s been my experience that when you decide to have a child, there’s nothing that’s going to stop you. You’ll move heaven and earth and do whatever you can to become a parent, even if that means seeking out fertility treatments or deciding to adopt. (Neither is a walk in the park, but worth it in the end). And if you want a child more than anything, you should have one. There are risks that come with everything in life, but that’s not a reason to shut yourself off from the potential joys. The good almost always outweighs the bad and, when it comes to starting a family, you should never be ruled by fear.
In the last few years, researchers have also discovered several factors that can increase your child’s risk of developing autism, which include exposure to pollution and environmental toxins, infection during pregnancy, poor prenatal nutrition, and just plain old genetics. Put simply: There’s no one thing that causes autism and, at this point, nothing that can be done to prevent it.