Autism and IVF: Is There a Connection?
As more and more couples turn to in-vitro fertilization (IVF) to start or expand their families, concerns have been raised about a possible link between IVF and autism spectrum disorder.
If you Google ‘Autism and IVF’, you’ll receive approximately 6,860,000 results, all with conflicting outcomes. It can be very overwhelming to get a definitive answer. While we share just a fraction of those studies below, you’ll see that the cause of autism is still very much in debate.
What is autism?
Autism spectrum disorder, or autism, is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects how a person behaves, communicates with others, and perceives the world around them. Autism is a "spectrum" disorder because its symptoms and severity can vary widely from person to person.
According to the CDC, the most common signs of autism are usually seen in early childhood, often before age 5. These signs often include difficulties in social interactions, such as making eye contact with people, developing relationships with others, and sharing their emotions.
Autistic children may also display repetitive behaviors, routines, or interests. In addition, they may have a hard time using and understanding language and may also be sensitive to certain sensory stimuli, such as sounds, lights, or textures.
What causes autism?
Simply put, the exact cause of autism is not fully understood. According to the Mayo Clinic, genetic and environmental factors are believed to contribute to the disorder's development. In addition, research has identified a few genetic mutations and chromosomal abnormalities that might increase the chance of developing autism. Still, no single "autism gene" is responsible for the condition.
Studies have also found a few other compelling factors that may correlate with autism. For instance, research has found that children born to older parents, particularly fathers, may have a higher risk of developing autism. Environmental factors, such as prenatal exposure to toxins or infections, might also play a role in the development of autism. Ongoing research investigates many factors and their relationship to the development of autism in children. Unfortunately, one factor that has come to light within the past few years is IVF.
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The link between autism and IVF
There is still debate among experts about whether there is a connection between IVF and autism. Some studies have suggested a possible link, while others have found no association.
One theory is that the increased risk of autism in children born through IVF may be due to the underlying infertility factors in the parents rather than the IVF procedure itself. For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did one study that found that parents undergoing IVF are more likely to have genetic and environmental risk factors for autism, such as being born prematurely.
However, one study by the National Center for Biotechnology Information suggested that the IVF procedure itself may contribute to the increased risk of autism. Additional research by NCBI also indicated that the culture medium used to grow embryos during IVF and manipulating the embryos during the procedure may impact their development and increase the risk of autism.
Autism and IVF: The overall risk is low
Despite the ongoing debate, it is critical to know that the overall risk of autism in children born through IVF is still relatively low. According to JAMA, most children born through IVF do not develop autism. However, it would be best to keep in mind that many factors can contribute to the development of autism, as well as that a diagnosis of autism in a child born through IVF does not necessarily mean that the IVF procedure itself caused the condition.
Above all, know that an autism diagnosis is nothing that could have resulted from something within your control. Many things can cause autism, and there's no way you can prevent or control all of these factors.
So, if you're on the fence about IVF because of a potential connection to autism, just know that this connection is extremely small. However, if you are still unsure, it's always a good idea to speak with your provider.
Jennifer “Jay” Palumbo is a freelance writer, infertility and women’s rights advocate, former stand-up comic, author of the blog, “The 2 Week Wait,” and proud IVF Mom. Her articles have been featured in Time magazine, Huffington Post, and ScaryMommy. She has been interviewed on news outlets such as CNN, NPR, and BBC, where she has demonstrated her ability to make even reproductive issues fun and educational. You can follow her "infertility humor" on Instagram at @jennjaypal.