About That Study Linking PCOS and Autism in Kids

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Photo: Alex Mares-Manton/Getty Images

For the uninitiated, polycystic ovary syndrome (or PCOS) is a hormonal disorder that affects as many as one in ten women and is marked by irregular periods, acne, excessive body hair, and weight gain. It's also the leading cause of female infertility, so when new research suggested that women with PCOS are more likely to have kids with autism spectrum disorder, many might have thought, This is a joke, right? Here's what everyone should know about this study.

Researchers in Sweden looked at children born between 1984 and 2007 and, using their country's National Patient Register, compared diagnoses of PCOS in mothers with records of autism spectrum disorder (or ASD) in children. Writing in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, they found that women with PCOS are 59 percent more likely to have a child with ASD than women without the endocrine condition. The risk increase for obese women with PCOS was even higher, at 113 percent. Cue alarm bells across the internet.

But there are several things to consider here, perhaps the most important being that this is the first study to find such a connection. Even the authors acknowledge that the results need to be replicated before we all get concerned. Next, the research highlights the relative risk of having a child with ASD — the absolute risk is still pretty low. For example, about one in 68 children in the U.S. (or 1.47 percent) has been diagnosed with ASD. A 59 percent increase translates to about one in 43 children, or a 2.3 percent incidence — scary, but not exactly epidemic levels.

The authors also said that the prevalence of PCOS diagnoses in their sample was lower than expected, so we may not have the full picture here. And finally, overall autism rates in this study were much higher than the expert consensus: Researchers think it’s slightly higher than one percent, but in this study, 10 percent of all kids had ASD (23,748 out of 232,544 total). So, yeah, these findings might be more preliminary than we think.

As lead author Kyriaki Kosidou told the Huffington Post, “While we did observe an increased risk for ASD, it was a modest increase for a relatively rare disorder. Chances are that children born to a mother with PCOS will not develop autism.”