About That Study Linking Antidepressants To Autism…

Photographed by Jessica Nash.
A new study linking the use of antidepressants in pregnancy to childhood autism has headlines flying. But this is one that could use a healthy dose of skepticism.

The study, published online this week in JAMA Pediatrics, looked at data from nearly 145,500 Canadian babies born between 1998 and 2009. The researchers found that children were more likely to be diagnosed with autism later on if their mothers had taken antidepressants — specifically SSRIs — in their second or third trimesters of pregnancy. The study authors conclude that "use of [antidepressants] during the second and/or third trimester is associated with an 87% increased risk of autism spectrum disorder."

Sounds pretty outrageous, right? Well, there are some issues here. That seemingly dramatic increase in the rate of autism isn't so exciting when you look at the actual numbers: Just 31 out of 2,532 children whose mothers had taken antidepressants in their second or third trimester had autism. That's compared to 40 children with autism out of 4,200 whose mothers had taken antidepressants in their first trimester and 1,008 autistic children out of about 140,700 without any exposure to the drugs.

So the researchers are drawing big conclusions from small numbers. And it's worth remembering that despite our society's fixation on autism, the disorder is still relatively rare. According to the CDC, only about 1% of the general population has autism. Let's play The Hypothetical Game and say science discovered a factor that actually did increase the risk of autism by 87% — even if you round that number up to 100%, doubling the current risk for autism would still only leave you with a 2% risk.

This certainly isn't the first study to look at a possible link between antidepressants and autism. But past studies have turned up mixed results. For instance, a Swedish study published in 2013 did find a link between autism and antidepressant use, but couldn't determine if using the drugs during pregnancy actually caused autism. On the other hand, a study (looking specifically at U.S. children) published this June found no connection between antidepressant use during pregnancy and autism. And, as NPR points out, it's difficult to dissociate the effects of these drugs from the effects of the issues we take them to treat (e.g. depression).

In our unwavering quest to find some hidden ingredient in our modern lives that we can "blame" for the perceived rise of autism (which could just be a matter of increased awareness since the 1970s and 1980s), our society is quick to jump on every every potential nugget — no matter how thin the research really is at this point. But, as usual, we're probably better off not freaking out.

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