Autism; “Doom” and “Disease”..?

There is a new study out linking a father’s age to risk of autism. The story has been reported in one of the most popular news sources in my country, The New Zealand Herald. They have presented the story under this charming heading:

Are older dads genetically dooming their kids?

In that story, the reporter independently refers to autism as a disease. Not once, not twice, but three times. I can almost forgive this error in classification, because the researchers themselves are quoted (in other news stories) as categorizing autism as a “disease.” I’ve now read numerous versions of the report from news sources around the world, and thankfully the vast majority of them call autism a disorder or a condition (though at least one did decide autism was an “illness,” which seems even more erroneous than calling it a “disease”.)

But “dooming?” Really? It’s necessary, in a major national newspaper, to use an emotive (and frankly, distorting) word like “dooming,” in reference to autism?

Dooming: (1) To condemn to ruination or death. (2) To destine to an unhappy end.

The use of words like “dooming” and “disease” as descriptors of autism, just reinforces for me that autism is still the over-simplified monster-under-the-bed for reporters and the public. To my mind, presenting autism is this sensationalist and inaccurate manner, is in the same category as those who present it as always some fluffy feel-good difference that comes inevitably hand-in-hand with a genius IQ and a talent for computers.

The fact is that autism is complex and various. It is many things. The reality and experience of it varies greatly from individual to individual, and from family to family. But what it is not, is “disease” or “doom.” Thankfully, the New Zealand Herald was the only news source I could find (after extensive searching) which chose to use such an emotive headline.

As for the story itself – the details of how strong the evidence and explanation is of a link between older dads and autism – I’m going to wait until particular reputable science bloggers dig through the study’s details and explain it; I learnt a while back that mass media is a very poor source of accurate science reporting. They’d sooner run a scary headline and make claims of new definitive proofs, than explain and present scientific findings in the less sensationalist light of reality.

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8 Responses to Autism; “Doom” and “Disease”..?

  1. blogginglily says:

    unfortunate headline.

  2. Jack says:

    I’m on the road right now byt when I get I’ll get a copy of the paper and see if they actually draw any conclusions about the correlation or not. But for your interest the actual author of the paper has a podcast on the nature website. I have not listened to it yet.

    • Jack says:

      Sorry for ther bad spelling! I did say I was on the road.

      Anyway I looked at the original nature article a bit more and the last five paragraphs are very interesting:
      1. most mutations are harmless
      2. previous studies have shown an increased rick of children being diagnosed autism with older fathers
      3. other studies have shown a dozen mutations possibly involved in autism and likely to come from father
      4. over last 5 years a 78 % increase in autism diagnosis in America (so much for static standard ORS funding!)
      5. Most cases of autism are not caused by a single new mutation — so there must be predisposing factors that are inherited from parents but are distinct from the new mutations occurring in sperm
      6. Previously in Iceland avergare age of fathers (34-38 years old) was higher than today
      7. Genetic mutations are the basis for natural selection

      As I said I’ll get a copy of the paper and have a look.

  3. Angela says:

    Well my darling hubby was 27 and 29 when we conceived our two who turned out to be on the spectrum-so in my world this is just plain wrong…

    • To be fair, it’s not proposed as a theory for all autism, but as an explanation for some instances of autism and in part for the increase in autism. My husband was in his mid twenties when we had our autistic son too, but that is neither here-nor-there as to whether the science is well founded.

  4. Sunshine says:

    Very thoughtless sensationalism. No doom in my house.

  5. RA Jensen says:

    Obviously there is a sub group, however large or small, whose origins can be attirbuted sperm mutations, There is now good research which is only beginning to explore the role of specific ennvironmental risk factors that are seen to generate specific sperm mutations, in children with an identified genetic syndrome
    Klinefelter Syndrome (KS) along with Down syndrome is one of the most common genetic syndromes affecting between 1 in 500-1,000 boys. KS which affects only males is not inherited and is caused by an extra X chromosome and presents with the KS genotype of XXY in contrast to the typical gender phenotypes of XY (males) and XX (females). The parent of origin is paternal in about half the cases and the parent of origin is maternal in about half the cases. KS is always caused by an XY sperm mutation or an XX egg mutation. The past year has produced increasing evidence that environmental risk factors may be involved in the generation of de novo gene mutations and that there is an age effect (paternal and maternal) operating in the developmental disorders including KS, intellectual disability, autism, ADHD and schizophrenia.

    The pesticides PCB and DDT have been banned in the US however the new classes of pesticides still contain many PCB and DDT congeners. The new classes of pesticides have a long half-life and increasing levels of exposures may build up over time producing increased levels of PCB and DDT congeners in reproductive cells (sperm or egg) and may explain the parental age effect seen in the development disorders.

    The advanced technological achievement of fluorescent in situ hybridization (FISH) has allowed evolutionary biologists to directly examine the locations and frequency of sperm mutations in male donors. The methodology requires examining a minimum of ten thousand individual sperm per donor. McAuliffe and colleagues recently (April 2012) reported that increasing levels of environmental exposure to PCB and DDT congeners measured in blood was associated with increased production of XY sperm in sub fertile males. Lowe’s group examined the sperm of 38 unaffected fathers of Klinefelter boys and found that XY sperm mutations was present in all the fathers and the frequency of XY sperm mutations increased with advancing paternal age.

    The C-BASS (Chinese – Benzene and Sperm Study) group (Nov 2011) examined the frequency of sperm mutations in workers who were benzene exposed in manufacturing plants in China and found increasing levels of workplace benzene exposure produced increased frequency of 1p36 sperm mutations and is a risk factor for 1p36 deletion syndrome. The burning of fossil fuels releases benzene particles into the atmosphere. Benzene is a natural constituent in all fossil fuels, petroleum, natural gas and coal. Benzene because of its high octane number is an additive in the production of refined gasoline and diesel fuels and may explain why living in close proximity to heavily congested polluted freeways in California is associated with an increased risk for autism possibly via sperm or egg mutations.


    Lowe X, Eskanazi B, Nelson D, Kidd S, Alme A. (2001). Frequency of XY Sperm Increases with Age in Fathers of Boys with Klinefelter Syndrome. Am J Hum Genet. 2001 November; 69(5): 1046–1054. Full text available at:

    Marchetti F, Eskanazi B, Weldon RH et al (2011). Occupational exposure to benzene and chromosomal structural aberrations in the sperm of Chinese men. Environ Health Perspect
    Doi:10.1289/ehp.1103921. Full text available at:

    McAuliffe ME, Williams PL, Korrick SA, Altshul LM, Perry MJ. (2012). Environmental Exposure to Polychlorinated Biphenyls and p,p´-DDE and Sperm Sex-Chromosome Disomy. Environ Health Perspect. 2012 April; 120(4): 535–540. Full text available at:

    Volk HE, Hertz-Picciotto I et al (2010). Residential proximity to freeways and autism in the CHARGE study. Environ Health Perspect 119(6): Full text available at

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