Whether they're nodding to stress hormones one week or diet the next, researchers are constantly trying to pin down which genetics and/or environmental factors are responsible for raising a child's risk of autism. The curiosity is understandable, considering that about one in 68 U.S. children has been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, according to the latest stats from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
While much of what we see cropping up in the news is related to moms and pregnancy health, studies are also looking at how fathers are a part of the picture. Here, four ways research has shown men could be contributing to autism risk ...
- Dad's job: Dads who worked in engineering were twice as likely as dads who work in non-technical fields to have a kid on the autism spectrum, according to recent research from The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. And dads who work in finance are four times as likely to have kids with autism, while fathers in the health care industry are six times as likely. (A mother's job wasn't shown to be linked with the spectrum disorder, unless she's in a technical field and the father is, as well.) The bottom line here isn't that dads who work in these fields are to blame for happening to like crunching numbers or building tunnels. Or that they should quit! Their occupations just serve to help health care providers arrive at a diagnosis more quickly. According to lead author of the study Aisha S. Dickerson, PhD, "Parental occupation could be indicative of autistic-like behaviors and preferences and serve as another factor in a clinician’s diagnosis of a child with suspected autism."
- Grandfather's job: A 1997 study done by Simon Baron-Cohen, professor of developmental psychopathology at the University of Cambridge and director of the Autism Research Center, found that 21.2 percent of grandfathers of children with autism had been engineers, compared with only 2.5 percent of grandfathers of children without autism. His guess why: When two technically minded people (engineers, for instance, or computer programmers) have a baby, they may pass down linked groups of genes that provide "useful cognitive talents but also increase their children’s chances of developing autism."
- Dad's age: Older fathers were found more likely to have children with ASD, likely due to age-related genetic mutations, in a study published in the journal Nature. The risk was only about 2 percent higher for men 40 and older, but it could explain the rising rates of autism we've seen in recent years, as the average age of fathers has increased in the same time period. A similar study found that children born to a 45-year-old man were 3.5 times more likely to have autism.
- Dad's weight: Researchers found that of nearly 93,000 Norwegian children they followed, those born to obese dads had double the risk of developing autism, according to a study published this past April in the journal Pediatrics. Still, just under 0.3 percent were diagnosed with autism versus 0.14 percent of kids with normal-weight fathers. (Mothers' obesity was not tied to a heightened autism risk, according to these findings.) While researchers aren't sure how to explain the link just yet, lead researcher Dr. Pal Suren, of the Norwegian Institute of Public Health in Oslo, hypothesizes that certain gene variations may be linked to heightened risks of both obesity and autism. Or obese men might be more likely to have certain environmental exposures that contribute to autism risk.
Essentially, all of these findings -- while eye-opening in different ways -- do appear to offer us all one common thing: A better understanding of autism diagnosis, which may mean better care for our kids.
How does this research influence how you think about autism risk?
Do you think we will ever really know what does and doesn't contribute to Autism?