Father’s age a factor in autism and schizophrenia

Or so new research in Nature and reported in the NY Times suggests. (The Nature discussion is very interesting, btw.)

The report seems to me to have political dimensions that can pull us in very different directions. On the one hand, it still seems to me amazing to see any questioning of the idea that it is only women who face a ticking reproductive clock. On the other hand, you know that the chances are very high that there is a lot of ablest thought that the research is going to inspire, and may well have been inspired by.

Let me add in that as a parent, the thought that one’s child might not be able to earn a living is utterly terrifying. Perhaps especially in the US, the fate of at least fairly markedly neuro-atypical adults can be very awful indeed.

Having said that, let me ask that if anyone has information on what people with markedly neuro-atypical children can do to plan a safe future for the child after they have died. Supposing, that is, that they don’t want to be academics. (JOKE!)

13 thoughts on “Father’s age a factor in autism and schizophrenia

  1. Actually, the linked to discussion in Nature is not the article. Here’s the biblio info on the article:

    Rate of de novo mutations and the importance of father’s age to disease risk

    Augustine Kong, Michael L. Frigge, Gisli Masson, Soren Besenbacher, Patrick Sulem, Gisli Magnusson, Sigurjon A. Gudjonsson, Asgeir Sigurdsson, Aslaug Jonasdottir, Adalbjorg Jonasdottir, Wendy S. W. Wong, Gunnar Sigurdsson, G. Bragi Walters, Stacy Steinberg, Hannes Helgason, Gudmar Thorleifsson, Daniel F. Gudbjartsson, Agnar Helgason, Olafur Th. Magnusson, Unnur Thorsteinsdottir & Kari Stefansson
    AffiliationsContributionsCorresponding authors
    Nature 488, 471–475 (23 August 2012) doi:10.1038/nature11396
    Received 28 February 2012 Accepted 04 July 2012 Published online 22 August 2012

  2. A lot of people, once they have children with autism, seek to avoid having any more. That might partially explain why children with autism tend to be among the later children in any family. I guess I’m the outlier, since my two are my first two out of five.

    I’m not sure what you have in mind as the ableist assumptions motivating the study. It is not ableism to seek to understand what causes autism or even to try to prevent it. Ableism could involve having a lower view of those with autism and perhaps discriminating against them. It would not be ableist to think that people with autism would have been better off without it. It would be ableist to treat them as less important because they have it, to assume everyone in a room has the same capabilities at communicating or sensory processing abilities, or to assume any behavioral difficulties are disciplinary problems. It would not be ableist to help those who have cognitive difficulties to improve their cognitive abilities or to prevent such conditions to begin with.

  3. I’m well aware of the neurodiversity perspective. I consider it to be basically a form of relativism, where there are really no better or worse ways to be, just different ways to be. I suppose that is one perspective you can have on disability, i.e. there is no such thing. But it’s pretty hard to argue that it’s not at least locally worse to lose your arm or your hearing compare with having it, even if it’s also true that you can gain valuable things by losing something valuable. Elizabeth Barnes has some nice papers on this.

    Autism is more complicated, because there are increased abilities with autism that are sort of built-in and not side-effects, the way loss of sight eventually leads to increased hearing or the benefits of the deaf community can be valued by deaf people. But my point is that autism is precisely a condition where there are aspects that are intrinsically less good, even if there are aspects that are intrinsically better for one than being neurotypical. It’s simply not true that we can’t evaluate these conditions in terms of good and bad, as if all states are well-being equivalent. Being of mixed good and bad in terms of well-being is not the same as being equivalent to being neurotypical in terms of well-being, and deciding that it’s on the whole worse to have autism than not is certainly a controversial claim. That doesn’t mean we should see it as beyond the pale, the way it should be to say that being black or being female is intrinsically worse than being white or being male.

    My own take is that it depends on the individual. I can clearly see ways my own sons are worse off because of their autism, and it’s much worse with one of them than with the other, because his difficulty communicating and severe sensory difficulties and problems living daily life are hard enough that I do think he’d clearly be better off without the condition or with a much more mitgated form of it. It might be less clear with other cases, and a lot of people with autism who are able to reflect on it and communicate their evaluation of it do think they would not be better off without the condition.

    But even my less-clearly-worse-off son would say that he really wishes he didn’t have some of the difficulties he has because of the condition. He indeed has communicated that, numerous times. He probably wouldn’t like being “cured” if it involved a complete change in his motivational structure or a removal of his especially-high memory capabilities. But there’s a lot about his condition that he wishes he didn’t have, and that’s not just because society has improper standards and expects him to do things he isn’t interested in or has a hard time with. He would want to do some of those things better than he can, and it would serve his best interests if he could. (For example, having a vastly diminished ability to use delayed gratification to motivate him to live in a healthy way is certainly against his best interests, and being unable to focus on anything for long unless it’s intrinsically rewarding is also bad for him.)

  4. JP, I agree with you and appreciate your nuanced response. In my family we have a strand of what I believe are interconnected ways of being atypical. It’s a kind of anxiety disorder at basis, I guess, but someone might have crushing anxiety-depressions, another OCD, and another paranoid delusional disorder. Some of the people are really gifted, and for them it might just possibly be worth the price, but in general these things can bring a life to a halt. Some, like OCD and depression, are also often very painful. I like the characterization of the comment as relativistic, though it is hard for me to see OCD as just another way of being.

    If you have some source material that’s helping you in managing to plan for your children’s future, I think a lot of people would like to hear about it.

  5. I don’t have any resources I can point to, but we did set up a trust for our kids, appointing someone to be their guardian if we die and someone else to be trustee of the money. It’s better than letting a judge decide. We don’t have the resources to leave them any money worth speaking of, so that’s not an issue. But we do have things set up for who will be in charge of them. We’ll have to make a decision on permanent guardianship once they get closer to 18, and we might not make the same decision for both of them. The older one is 11, so we have plenty of time still.

    My wife might know of any online resources about this. She spends a lot more time at autism-related sites than I do. You can find her contact info here.

  6. I’m not entirely sure how my comment will fit into the current conversation, but I feel compelled to make it. My mother lost her hearing at age 7. Although she certainly was ‘differently abled’ in some respects, she never thought those enhanced sensory abilities made up for her deafness. Indeed, I’m pretty sure she would have wanted to strike anyone who suggested otherwise.

    Similarly, I have unhappily passed on to my children both tendencies towards depression/anxiety and migraines. I reject any suggestion that these conditions are other than undesirable, whatever the genetic upsides might be.

    It is one thing to be aware that not all ‘disabilities’ are dreadful horrors and that ‘disabled’ persons can have wonderful lives, given sufficient support. It is quite another to suggest that being disabled is not to be disabled.

  7. ChrisTS, people who think that being disabled isn’t always (intrinsically?) bad for you aren’t committed to the idea that “being disabled is not to be disabled”. Or at least they aren’t unless there’s normativity built into the very meaning of the word “disabled” – which strikes me as very implausible.

    Nor are they committed to the idea that alternative abilities somehow “make up for” what is lost. The idea is that, while disability often involves a lack of some common abilities (or at least makes the disabled person do things a little differently) it also can bring with it unique experiences (and sometimes unique abilities). And these experiences can be valuable, and can be the sort of experiences that aren’t available to the non-disabled. So disability can’t be understood as *merely* a lack or privation. It’s more complicated than that. There’s good and there’s bad.

    And sometimes the good or valuable aspects of being disabled make the disabled person’s life such that they don’t think they would’ve been better off non-disabled, or that they would prefer to be non-disabled. They think the lives they live are just as rich and fulfilling as those of non-disabled people, even if they’re a little different. But I don’t know of any disability rights advocate who says that *everyone* who is disabled can or should feel this way. People are different, and have different preferences.

    Something which the disability rights movement really does try to argue, though, is that much of both our attitudes about disability and the harms suffered by disabled people are due to society’s ableism, rather than anything intrinsic to disability. So it might be the case that more people – though again, not everyone, since people are different – wouldn’t find their experience of disability an overall harm if society was less prejudiced against the disabled.

  8. Jeremy, I just wanted to pick up briefly on something you said at the end of your comment 6. You say: “But even my less-clearly-worse-off son would say that he really wishes he didn’t have some of the difficulties he has because of the condition. He indeed has communicated that, numerous times.”

    It’s worth point out that this is true of a lot of things we holistically value. I mean, I love being female. I wouldn’t want to be male. I’m not sure my closest male counterpart should even count as “me” (at least on days when I don’t think all essentialist claims are false). But there are aspects of being female that really do suck with reckless abandon. A lot of these are extrinsic, of course – just part of living in a patriarchal society. But some of them aren’t. It never fails to strike me as a weird and fundamentally unpleasant thing, for example, that I bleed out of my vagina once a month. And I don’t think I’m alone in feeling that way.

    I value being female. But there are things about it I don’t like. That doesn’t mean I would be better off if I wasn’t female. (Though it may be evidence that I’d be better off if I could keep stay female but get rid of some of the bits about it that I don’t like.) In general, it’s just to admit that many of life’s blessings are mixed ones.

  9. Magicalersatz, i don’t think you and Jeremy are in disagreement, are you? I do find your points useful and clarifying, though.

    I do think that some cases of mental disability have really nothing good to be said for them, except that near relatives might have features that are good. OCD might be one case here. It just isn’t that they are – or always are – doing ok in different terms.

    Sacks is great on seeing alternative lives can be very worthwhile.

  10. Oh, sorry – I should’ve been clearer! No, I don’t think Jeremy and I are in disagreement. I just wanted to follow up on what he said right at the end.

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