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Why 'Autism Linked to …' Headlines Don't Tell the Whole Story

Once again, the health sections of newspapers and online sources are trumpeting, “Autism Linked to …”.  Today, it’s “Autism Linked to Maternal and Paternal Age.”

In fact, this isn’t really news; it just confirms a 2006 study and an even larger 2010 study.

The problem I have with these news releases isn’t that autism is being linked to something. That part is good. I’m glad that research is ongoing, and that scientists are looking at the puzzle of autism from many different angles. What concerns me is that simply linking something to autism doesn’t show that there’s a cause involved.

News outlets consistently gloss over the difference between a causative link and a correlative link, leaving readers to make assumptions. (And subsequently, for random Concerned Citizens to ask me if I’m feeling guilty yet for causing my son’s autism.)

This new study, coming out of University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston, utilizes existing data to confirm that “older maternal and paternal age are jointly associated with having a child with autism.” According to UT Health’s press release:

In the study, researchers found that mothers who had children with autism were on average 6.5 years older than women who did not have a child with autism. The corresponding age difference for fathers was 5.9 years.

Unfortunately, the press release doesn’t go on to explain why this might be the case, probably because the study was strictly looking at numerical data, and not designed to determine why. And therefore, none of the many news outlets that “report” the story (essentially, just regurgitating the press release), ask why either. So we parents and readers are left to wonder what the numbers mean.

The truth is, I doubt they mean anything at all. It’s entirely possible that older parents are more likely to seek out a diagnosis for a child, in the first place. Older parents are more likely to have the financial resources to obtain a private evaluation, as well as more savvy about how to request a free evaluation through Early Intervention or one’s school district, for example. One could have just as easily changed the headline to read “Autism Under-Diagnosed in Families With Younger Parents.”

In any case, this study serves only to provide a link. Older parental age is linked to having a child with autism: that’s a correlative link. It does not mean that older parents are actually at higher risk to have a child with autism. It means that within a small group (this study used data from 68 families), older parents were more likely to have a child diagnosed on the spectrum.

Over the years, lots of things have been linked to autism: being a “refrigerator mother,” taking anti-depressants in pregnancy, living near a highway, the environment, having a malfunctioning immune system. Some of these links pan out as helpful, some don’t.

In our family’s case, what’s truly been linked to having a child with autism is having a crapton of other relatives with autism. While I’m waiting for someone to pick apart my DNA of Crap, I’ll keep reading the headlines, and taking them with a grain of salt salt lick.

(Photo credit: Beverly & Pack/Flickr)

You can read more from Joslyn on her blog, stark. raving. mad. mommy. You can also follow her on Facebook and on Twitter.

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