A study from Iceland that ties the risk for autism with a father's age has certainly grabbed headlines. But does the research live up to the hype—and what does a dad of a child with autism think?
Published in the journal Nature, the study found that older men are more likely than their younger peers to father a child who develops autism or schizophrenia due, researchers speculate, to genetic mutations in sperm that are more common with advancing age. What's more, dads' biological clocks may be the deciding factor in whether or not a child develops autism or schizophrenia—moms' age seems to have little bearing on risk for these disorders. (Previous studies laid blame more equally on both mom and dad.)
One experienced dad's perspective? Stuart Duncan blogs about raising a child with autism at Autism from a Father's Point of View. He believes this latest research, like other studies that have come before it, just serves to raise the fear factor for parents-to-be. "More information is better than no information, but at this point, the only result we're seeing from all of this research is that parents are becoming scared to death to have children. They can't have kids if they're overweight, live close to a freeway, are over 40, ever get sick, might have a preemie..." he says. "What are parents to do? They can't possibly avoid all of that!"
Duncan—who, for the record, fathered his son at 29—may have a point. Researchers say the absolute risk of a dad in his 40s having a child with autism is only 2 percent, though experts interviewed by The New York Times suggest that age-related genetic mutations may be responsible for 15 to 30 percent of all cases of autism.
"Paternal age is clearly a risk factor, but it is one among many risk factors that include advanced maternal age and unknown gene-environment interactions," Daniel G. Smith, Ph.D., Senior Director of Discovery Neuroscience at Autism Speaks, tells BabyZone in an exclusive statement.
What else does Smith want parents to know? "The reality is that most individuals with autism were born to parents in their 20s, and that there are many children of older parents that do not have autism or schizophrenia."
In other words, there's still a lot we don't know. Says Duncan, "Parents should just have a child if they are ready to have a child, period."