Study Shows Parents of Children with Autism may be Less Likely to Have More Children

familyA study published in JAMA Psychiatry found that parents of a child diagnosed with autism were one-third less likely to have more children than parents with typically-developing children. The study found a correlation between having a child with autism and choosing not to have more children, but did not specifically ask the participants for the reason behind their choice.

This is the first published study to explore whether having a child with autism influences whether or not parents will choose to have more children. Study author Neil Risch, professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California, San Francisco said,

“While it has been postulated that parents who have a child with ASD may be reluctant to have more children, this is the first time that anyone has analyzed the question with hard numbers.”

The study reviewed the birth records of 19,710 families who had a child with autism born between 1990 and 2003, and compared them to 36,215 control families with typically-developing children. The study did not ask participants to share the reasoning behind their decision not to have more children, but the statistically significant number suggests that having a child with autism may be a factor in choosing not to have more children in the future.

Autism is generally diagnosed in early childhood, between the ages of two to five. The study also found that for the first three years, reproductive behavior was similar to that of families with unaffected children, further suggesting that the autism diagnosis is a likely factor in the families’ decision to stop having children.

It is well documented that raising a child with autism puts a great deal of stress on families. Lack of support and social isolation takes a toll, as well as the financial burden of paying for medical and therapy bills. It has also been shown that having a child diagnosed with autism can put stress on a marriage, which could be another factor in families’ choosing not to have more children. Many families also express concern that other children will be affected by autism as well.

The cause of autism is currently unknown, though many researchers have pointed to a probable genetic component. This leads to an interesting question – if families who have a child with autism are choosing to stop having children, and if autism is genetic, then why is the rate of autism still rising? In the year 2000, one in 150 children were diagnosed with autism. This number has risen to one in 68 by the year 2010, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Says Risch,

“The fact that the parents choose to have fewer children means the genes that predispose to ASD are less likely to be passed on to future generations. ASD has an important genetic component, which should be diminishing over time due to this reduction in childbearing.”

Should be, but isn’t.