Foreboding foreskin

Circumcision may make boys more likely to develop autism

Early this year, the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine published a research article by Statens Serum Institut that found a correlation between circumcision and autism spectrum disorder (ASD), hyperactivity disorder and asthma.

The research was inspired by studies of other species showing that physical pain in early childhood resulted in negative psychological responses to stress, anxiety and pain perception – all components of ASD. The process of circumcision cannot be entirely without pain and, according to the study, 71 percent of circumcised boys suffer pain for six weeks following the operation.

The researchers Morten Frisch and Jacob Simonsen examined the health records of over 340,000 Danish boys born between 1994 and 2003, the year the government stopped subsidised ritual circumcisions.

The study only included circumcisions performed in hospitals, as those that took place in private (for example during religious ceremonies) were not registered in the health journals. They then controlled for parameters suc as cultural background, birth weight, mode of delivery, pregnancy complications and maternal factors (smoking habits, age, etc.) as well as other factors that could impact the probability of the subject developing ASD.

The study concludes that, regardless of cultural background, circumcision increases the risk of boys developing ASD before age 10 by 46-62 percent. The study also found a link between circumcision and hyperactivity disorder in non-Muslim boys, though it found no correlation between circumcision and asthma.

While the researchers found a strong correlation between circumcision and ASD, they have not found an explanation. The researchers postulate that physical trauma in early life – circumcision in this case – may make the children less capable of managing stress, anxiety, and pain later in life – typical symptoms of ASD. This would also help to explain why boys are far more likely to develop autism than girls.

But the research has also been strongly criticised, particularly by religious groups. Circumcision is almost exclusively carried out as a religious practice in Denmark, making the results politically and culturally charged. If a causal link is found between circumcision and the development of ASD, then religious groups coul face pressure to change their practices to avoid potentially jeopardising the neurological and social development of young boys.

The study’s authors do not present any evidence for a causal link, encouraging other researchers to explore this possibility. The study of ASD is still in its infancy;  a general understanding of the exact nature of the disorder and its causes have yet to be established. The study by Statens Serum Institut thus represents an important step towards gaining insight into ASD. M


By Nereya Otieno

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