A new study has provided the strongest evidence yet that the rate of autism in children rises with the father's age: Advancing paternal age and risk of autism. But questions remain.
The association between old fathers and autism has been known for many years, and the most popular explanation has been genetic: sperm from older men are more likely to have accumulated DNA damage, which might lead to autism.
As I've said before, this might explain some other puzzling things such as the fact that autism is more common in the wealthy; it might even explain any recent increases in the prevalence of autism, if people nowadays are waiting longer to have kids.
But there are other possibilities. It might be that the fathers of autistic people tend to have mild autistic symptoms themselves (which they do), and this makes them likely to delay having children, because they're socially anxious and so take longer to get married, or whatever. It's not implausible.
The new study aimed to control for this, by looking at parents who had two or more children, at least one of them with autism, and at least one without it. Even within such families, the autistic children tended to have older fathers when they were born - that is to say, they were born later. See the graphs below for details. This seems to rule out explanations based on the characteristics of the parents.
However, there's another objection, the "experienced parent" theory. Maybe if parents have already had one neurotypical child, they're better at spotting the symptoms of autism in subsequent children, by comparison with the first one.
The authors tried to account for this as well, by controlling for the birth-order ("parity") of the kids. They also controlled for the mother's age amongst several other factors such as year of birth and history of mental illness in the parents. The results were still highly significant: older fathers meant a higher risk of autism. As if that wasn't enough, they also did a meta-analysis of all the previous studies and confirmed the same thing.
So overall, this is a very strong study, but there's a catch. The study population included over a million children (1,075,588) born in Sweden between 1983 and 1992. Of these, there was a total of 883 diagnosed cases of autism. That's a rate of 0.08%. In other words, although older fathers raised the risk of autism by quite a lot relatively speaking, the absolute rate was still tiny.
The most recent estimates of autism prevalence in Britain have put the figure at somewhere in the region of between 1% and 2% e.g. Baird et al (2006) and Baron-Cohen et al (2009) with American studies, using slightly different methods, generally coming in just below 1%. So the Swedish figure is more than 10 times lower than modern estimates. Whether this reflects different criteria for diagnosis, national differences, or increased prevalence over time, is debatable but it does raise the question of whether these findings still apply today.
The only way to know for sure would be to do a randomized controlled trial - get half your volunteer men to wait 10 years before having children - but I don't think that's going to happen any time soon...
Hultman CM, Sandin S, Levine SZ, Lichtenstein P, & Reichenberg A (2010). Advancing paternal age and risk of autism: new evidence from a population-based study and a meta-analysis of epidemiological studies. Molecular psychiatry PMID: 21116277