If you have one autistic child, your chances of having another child on the autism spectrum are even greater than previously thought, according to a new study from Pediatrics. While the recurrence risk of autism had been previously estimate at 3 to 10 percent, researchers from the University of California at Davis MIND Institute have found that the recurrence risk of 18.7 percent if the younger sibling is a boy and 9 percent if the young sibling is a girl.
The study is the largest to look at the risk of the younger sibling of an autistic child also being diagnosed with autism, says NPR. 664 infants with an older biological sibling with an autism spectrum disorder were followed from early in life to 36 months, at which point they were diagnosed as being autistic or not.
If a family already has two autistic children, a young sibling has a 1 in 3 chance of being diagnosed with autism.
One reason for researchers finding an increased risk of a young sibling being autistic is that†the criteria for an autism spectrum diagnosis are broader than in the past. A younger sibling might be diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, for instance, and have an average or higher IQ and be able to attend mainstream schools; in the past, clinicians might not have seen such a child as being on the autism spectrum. Due to all the attention cast onto autism in the past decade, people have a much better understanding of the neurodevelopmental disability and are thus more likely to detect autism in a child, especially if they know the child has an autistic sibling.
My 14-year-old son Charlie is our only child; we decided only to have only him for a number of reasons. Charlie received a diagnosis of severe autism when he was just about two years old (well, the team at the Minneapolis Children’s Hospital who diagnosed him didn’t actually say “severe autism” but gave us a general sense of “this kid is a really bad case”). He can talk a very little, can’t really read, has lots of academic and communication and behavioral challenges; just a few years ago a school behavior consultant was recommending a “temporary residential placement” for him. We wanted to be able to devote all of our resources to taking care of Charlie, whose early years of therapy costed about the same as private college tuition. We knew that if we had another autistic child, I would not be able to work. We’ve moved several times (including, once, into my in-laws’ house) to find the best educational opportunities for Charlie. A sibling would have found that his or her life completely revolved around Charlie’s care.
Frankly, I wasn’t really surprised to learn about the higher rates of autism found in younger siblings of autistic children, nor was my husband. We’ve long thought the estimates of 3 to 10 percent were low and know several families with more than on autistic child. In some cases, the children’s autism diagnoses are at different levels of severity on the autism spectrum (one child might have Asperger’s and the other autism; the child with Asperger’s might only have been diagnosed after their younger sibling was diagnosed).
With all this said, I hope that people won’t rush to judgement regarding the study and that families with one autistic child won’t have dire warnings issued to them about the risks of having another autistic child. Life with Charlie is never easy but we really do know so much about autism today and, especially, about how to teach and help autistic children and individuals. We still have a long way to go and certainly can do a lot better in creating the best possible schools, services and residential and job options for autistic adults. It was scary learning that Charlie was autistic twelve years ago but I hope parents might know that there is always a lot of hope and more so than ever today.
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