It’s hard to not worry about autism as a parent or potential parent. When I was pregnant in 2009, one in 120 kids was on the autism spectrum; earlier this month, we learned that this number has jumped to one in 88. Autism is particularly rampant in boys (affecting roughly one in 50).
Is my baby “on the spectrum”?
When Felix was a newborn, I wondered why he didn’t gaze at me the way all the books promised he would. When he was 6 months old our pediatrician suggested that I “keep an eye it,” after he asked if Felix imitated our facial expressions and I said no. For me, “keep an eye on it” equalled Googling signs of autism, pausing only long enough to poke my tongue out at my baby every 30 seconds, fervently praying that he’d follow suit.
I hope that I won’t worry about autism with any subsequent children I have, but if the statistics keep heading in this direction, that may be difficult.
What causes autism?
Plastic? Pesticides? Prenatal ultrasounds? I can’t even venture a guess, but recent studies show that advanced paternal age is a significant risk factor, due to spontaneous gene mutations that are more likely to occur in older men’s sperm.
Men have a biological clock, too.
Older dads doesn’t entirely explain the dramatic uptick in autism rates over the last several decades (the gene mutations account for only about 10 percent of autism cases). And, in fairness, I have to mention that advanced maternal age is also associated with an increased risk of autism. Still, I admit that I am relieved to learn that men also would be wise to listen to the ticking of a biological clock. For guys over 50, the risk of having a child with autism is twice that of a father under the age of 30.
Will this change the dating landscape?
Here in New York, many of my bachelor friends are this close to being in their forties, still dating girls in their early twenties, and turning up their noses at anyone over 30. And among my single female friends in their mid- or late thirties, there is talk of freezing eggs and worry over increased complications should they delay pregnancy. For too long we’ve all focused on the startling rates of Down syndrome for moms over 40 (about 1 percent, which is more than ten times the risk for a 25-year-old mother). I’ll admit it: I would be secretly psyched to learn that a fecund 23-year-old opted to date a fellow 23-year-old instead of one of my guy friends who was basically born in the ’60s. Perhaps I’m just a bitter nearly-32-year-old, but I feel that the playing field has been ever so slightly leveled.