Wednesday, November 01, 2006

TV Really Might Cause Autism--from

TV Really Might Cause AutismA Slate exclusive: findings from a new Cornell study.
By Gregg Easterbrook
Posted Monday, Oct. 16, 2006, at 6:52 AM ET
Listen to the MP3 audio version of this story here, or sign up for Slate's free daily podcast on iTunes.

Last month, I speculated in Slate that the mounting incidence of childhood autism may be related to increased television viewing among the very young. 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. This was sheer speculation, since I knew of no researchers pursuing the question.

Today, Cornell University researchers are reporting what appears to be a statistically significant relationship between autism rates and television watching by children under the age of 3. The researchers studied autism incidence in California, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Washington state. They found that as cable television became common in California and Pennsylvania beginning around 1980, childhood autism rose more in the counties that had cable than in the counties that did not. They further found that in all the Western states, the more time toddlers spent in front of the television, the more likely they were to exhibit symptoms of autism disorders.

The Cornell study represents a potential bombshell in the autism debate. "We are not saying we have found the cause of autism, we're saying we have found a critical piece of evidence," Cornell researcher Michael Waldman told me. Because autism rates are increasing broadly across the country and across income and ethnic groups, it seems logical that the trigger is something to which children are broadly exposed. Vaccines were a leading suspect, but numerous studies have failed to show any definitive link between autism and vaccines, while the autism rise has continued since worrisome compounds in vaccines were banned. What if the malefactor is not a chemical? Studies suggest that American children now watch about four hours of television daily. Before 1980—the first kids-oriented channel, Nickelodeon, dates to 1979—the figure is believed to have been much lower.


mcewen said...

The reason
Well that’s a relief, at least I know why they’re autistic now. Nothing to do with mercury poisoning, the MMR vaccine, Thimerosol, refrigerator mother or luck, just too much telly. Fancy that! Who’d have thought it? Not a cure of course but a cause. I haven’t had time to check out whether it’s really too much telly or just any telly, but it doesn’t really matter now as they’ve already been contaminated. It’s great, now I have someone else to blame. And there was me thinking that Leaky Gut Syndrome was the answer. When we first came to America we didn’t even have a television as we didn’t think there was anything worth watching then, nor did we know anything about the ‘Theory of Mind.’ We were drawn in after a while though, tempted by public television and the small entertainment budget of immigrants. But I think that was their father’s fault, which ties in with the theory of the ‘Extreme Male Brain.’ By the time the children started arriving we discovered a few programs for little children. I always thought it was Barney and his social skills training that did the damage, but now I’m not so sure whether I should perhaps be looking at Elmo in a whole new light. These days, having branched out into cable TV, clearly I need look no further than Spongebob and his rabble. A curse on all their houses for warping my children. I’m an American now, so perhaps I should sue somebody, anybody. Who cares about parental responsibility, we were duped, it was supposed to be educational not corrupting. Nothing to do with faulty neurons after all, what luck!
It’s a shame really as it removes one of many, many tools in my arsenal of bribes to motivate them, and you need a great deal of motivation with autistic children. It’s only one of many, but it’s a powerful one. It’s the solution to any number of obstacles in the average day, a whole laundry list of achievements can gradually be built up with the promise of telly at the end of the day; get dressed, use the toilet, wash your hands, the list goes on and on. I know there other rewards such as verbal praise, a high five, a hug but the autistic child is not motivated by such trivialities, or at least mine aren’t, but that’s probably because I’m a refrigerator mom.
Never mind, like many parents above all other things, 30 minutes of telly means that I can prepare dinner and don’t say it would be better if I allowed them to help, it would and I sometimes do, but their fine and gross motor skills are a challenge for all of us. But when alls said and done, I blame the dodgy gene pool myself.

iamnasra said...

Thanks for this it is very insightful

Barbara J Gill said...

This is very interesting. I thought you might want to check all the autism
my friend Lisa is dealign with. She can be found at
I don't know how to put that address in correctly. She is dealing directly with the autism society in our Province of New Brunswick. Barbara

Lisa_R said...

I'm the Lisa being referred to by the last commenter. My son has asperger's syndrome and never watched any tv before the age of 2 and then VERY little tv after that. He never played the computer until age 7. I was extremely careful on tv and video/computer exposure at a young age. So in my son's case this study is not relevant. Although perhaps Asperger's fall into a different category with this autism study.

Pecos Blue said...

It just blew me away that there could be any correlation and thought I would share to get some comments. And these are all really good comments.

Thank you

Madcap said...

I have several family members with autism, and they were always noticably affected from the first year, if not as neonates. Personally I think the prevalence is a combination effect of genes, pollutants, medications, and definitely the malnutrition of North America. Maybe we just reached some sort of peak in 1980?

Interesting correlation, though.

Lisa_R said...

This is a great discussion:) I'd have to say that I think genetics and potential birth trauma play a roll in it. We used mostly organic products, both food and household. We were vegetarian (semi-vegetarian now) and my oldest never had any medications, not even antibiotics until he was 7. He was breastfed too (yes, we did the whole attachment parenting thing). But he had a difficult birth with some oxygen deprivation. And there are other autistic members in the extended family. Basically, I think that it's very complex. There are so many variables that apply to some kids and not to others. While the vaccine issue has been shown as not valid, I know parents who swear their child changed after the vaccine, including my son. My son had a strong reaction to his 3 month vaccinations and his behavour changed considerably after that. At this point, at least with us, we've stopped wondering why it may have happened and we deal with how we can make his life better. We're fortunate though in that his asperger's is very mild compared to many other kids.

Anonymous said...

harmful to brain development!?
awww sounds aweful!!
i love children who have autism. they are cute...
thank u very much for ur interesting post!!

Keshi said...

if not for Autism, too much TV causes brain-damage :)


Pecos Blue said...


so very true!