Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Does TV cause autism?

Among the diseases that have increased in the last few decades, autism is one of the most commonly mentioned.
The alarming rise in autism rates in the U.S. and some other developed nations is one of the most anguishing mysteries of modern medicine — and the source of much desperate speculation by parents. In 1970, its incidence was thought to be just 1 in 2,500; today about 1 in 170 kids born in the U.S. fall somewhere on the autism spectrum.
The problem is, nobody can say for sure what has caused that increase. Some say that it is the mercury-based preservative in vaccines and others say it has only increased due to broader definitions and better detection, not actual incidence.

Now, however, a study has been released that seems to show a correlation between TV watching prior to age 3 and autism. Causation seems to be a little trickier to nail down, but the study is certainly intriguing. The hypothesis does seem to make sense. Gregg Easterbrook pondered approximately a month ago (prior to the study's release),
The autism rise began around 1980, about the same time cable television and VCRs became common, allowing children to watch television aimed at them any time. Since the brain is organizing during the first years of life and since human beings evolved responding to three-dimensional stimuli, I wondered if exposing toddlers to lots of colorful two-dimensional stimulation could be harmful to brain development.
Now, he notes,

Cornell University researchers are reporting what appears to be a statistically significant relationship between autism rates and television watching...The Cornell study represents a potential bombshell in the autism debate.
Needless to say, not all reaction to the study has been positive. Further research will tell whether a new piece of evidence has indeed been found in puzzling together the mystery of autism.

But could our proclivity to babysit via video be damaging our children? It is worth wondering.


Anonymous said...

I've heard a lot of studies looking for root causes of autism lately. Another popular and more dangerous theory posed that it was related to mercury in vaccines (leading some fearful parents not to vaccinate their kids). All in all though many of these studies that cite autism on the rise don't take into account the fact that in the past, autism was difficult to diagnose and often went undiagnosed because of the stigma attached to it. I do agree that in young children TV watching is unnecessary but with the rise of "Baby Einstein" and the like, I'm not sure that I'm convinced it's harmful.

Interestingly enough, autism has also been shown to be "on the rise" in many African villages (I'lll try to find the study) where few adults, let alone babies, have access to television.

pepperdeaf said...

i'm skeptical of the tv/autism link, partly because autism should show up at a fairly young age. if autism generally did not exhibit itself until 3-4, i would probably be more convinced of a tv link.

the immunizations question is interesting. many of the parents of my wife's children (my wife teaches all autistic children) swear that autistic symptoms did not show up until after immunizations. no study has shown a link though.

as a precaution, we have not chosen not to immunize our baby, but simply to slow down the immunization schedule. our concern is not the immunizations themselves, but the fact that they are often given all together and at a very early age. we did no immunizations in the hospital (even though they tried several times) and elected to have two doses at the first appointment as opposed to five. we will then return in two week increments to have the other shots given.

one problem my wife has noticed with the theories of autism causes is that most exclude a hereditary element. many of her students also have siblings who are autistic.

the wife's the expert though. i just act like i know something.

Westy said...

our concern is not the immunizations themselves, but the fact that they are often given all together and at a very early age.
Wasn't the concern with the thimiserol in the vaccines and not so much the vaccines themselves?

Westy said...

Also, here's another alternative explanation mostly talking about genetic causation.

Obviously, everything is theory at this point, but it would make sense to me that the underlying genetic factors could be exacerbated by environmental triggers. Could parents having children who are predisposed to becoming autistic then be triggering the condition by exposing them to TV?