The XX Factor

Autism MAY Be Linked to Infertility Treatments

Time magazine is reporting this week on two studies showing possible links between autism and infertility treatments , one suggesting a correlation between infertility drugs like Clomid and the incidence of autism, and the other finding an association between autism and IVF. Not surprisingly, no conclusions could be drawn-these studies are more like tiny arrows pointing researchers in certain directions. Other common things associated with Clomid, for example-multiple births, pre-term delivery, low birth rate-also have an association with the risk of autism (although researchers did correct for advanced maternal age). The same can be said even more strongly of the study showing an association with IVF, which was relatively small as well. The brief article, which includes plenty of cautionary notes about how little this means to any one individual person at this stage, is still one of Time ‘s “most e-mailed.” These studies may not mean much yet. But we really, really want them to.

We want to prevent autism, of course. We want to find treatments, and finding root causes may help with that. But most of all, we want some kind of assurance that this particular bolt of lightning won’t strike us, and I suspect that’s a larger part of why we pounce on these inklings of information with the relish that we do and then invest them with so much more meaning that they deserve. If you e-mailed that article, who would be on your “send” list? A friend who’d taken Clomid or used IVF? (Because that will help her sleep at night.) A friend with an autism-affected child? Someone considering infertility treatment now? All of those people would be interested, although they might not thank you for the link-because there are serious reservations surrounding how much they’d really be informed by the gesture. Researchers like Harvard epidemiologist Kristen Lyall say they’re not sure what, if anything, the association (which is a very different thing from causation) means. “Any additional [fertility] treatment-related risk appears to be small: among women whose average age was 35 when they had their first child, there was a 4 percent risk of having a child with autism for those who had taken fertility drugs, compared with 2 percent for those with no drug exposure. The increase in risk was even smaller among a younger subset of women.”

That’s not to suggest that the research shouldn’t be reported on, or that it wasn’t properly filled with the appropriate caveats. But we’re hard-wired to take an increase in risk more seriously than the real numbers and probabilities surrounding it would merit, particularly a risk that feels out of our control (witness our greater fear of flying than of driving), and that’s something we should consider every time we read (or e-mail) an article like this one. Read. Consider. Learn. Maybe send. But don’t forget how little we still know.