Autism Myths and Truths, Part 3

Should we be concerned about our child’s language delay if the dad speaks late?

It is widespread for children with autism who have language delays to report that their fathers were also late talkers.  For example, the child’s father didn’t speak until age 3 or 4, started talking late, and has had no problems.  I’ve seen many families share this family history and believe their child will grow up just like his father.

However, in most of these cases, from a medical perspective, the child likely has an autism spectrum disorder, not just a speech delay, and it’s much more likely that the child will have a worse outcome than the father.

Autism is a highly genetic disorder and is highly paternally inherited, primarily through male genes. We see autism in males four to five times more often than in females, so if the dad has a language delay, he has a genetic factor indicating difficulty with social development.  This, of course, refers to the genetic factors associated with autism spectrum disorders, so if your child is also delayed in speech, they share an autism spectrum gene that is being activated.

It’s essential to remember that the propensity for autism isn’t getting weaker with inheritance; it’s getting stronger. The incidence of autism is increasing over time, and it’s thought that not only are the rates of autism increasing, but the symptoms of autism are becoming more severe.

There are several reasons why this is happening.  An increase in the age of childbearing is one of the most obvious. Increased environmental hormones, or the use of pesticides, is also an apparent cause. There is even a strong correlation between air pollution and autism rates.

In other words, the genetic factors have not changed, but the environmental risk factors have worsened so much in expressing the genes. So, if you had a predisposition to autism in the past, you could grow up to be a late talker, a little socially awkward, but very intelligent. Now if your child looks like you, the environment is attacking that predisposition so intensely and continuously that it’s much more likely that your child will not just be a late talker. Instead, your child is at a much higher risk of becoming an autistic child with much less interest in people.

If the dad had a speech delay, and the child shows the same delay in language development, too, that’s hazardous evidence.  Watching and waiting to see when the child will come out with words is not recommended, and the child is likely to be much more severe than the father. So the right option would be not to wait and seek early treatment.

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