TV and autism

TV may cause autism writes Gregg Easterbrook in Slate, citing a new Cornell study.

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.

Researchers have found more autism in areas with more cable TV access and more autism in years when heavy rain and snow kept children inside more.

A Cornell researcher recommends no TV for children under three.

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  1. My older daughter watched the movie “The Music Man” over 100 times before she was 3, while our younger daughter preferred the 1945 version of “State Fair”, (which she requested by pointing at the TV and saying “Pig!”). Neither of them are remotely autistic, but they never got to watch “regular TV”, either. We disconnected cable when the older one was born and, except for a week of World Cup action this summer, we’ve stayed disconnected.

  2. If this were the case, you’d see more autistic kids in the inner city where TV is on 24/7. The geeks of Silicon Valley and La Canada (wkere JPL is located) have lots of autistic spectrum kids, and they’re the populations that ate organic, stopped drinking coffee during pregnancy and don’t watch tv. I’d say it’s exposure to computers and code that causes it.

  3. Autism diagnoses also depend upon educated parents, who schlep their kids from doctor to doctor, when something seems wrong. I’m not under the impression that it’s like diagnosing chicken pox; it’s perfectly possible that kids in the inner city do have high rates of autism, but that the parents don’t have the education necessary to procure a diagnosis.

    I would also expect the populations of Silicon Valley to have more dual-career couples, with correspondingly high rates of kids in the care of sitters and nannies. Does the nanny let the kid watch t.v.? Does the daycare pop in a video when they’re shorthanded? Do the parents have the energy to keep the t.v. off in the evening when cooking dinner?

  4. I just hope this doesn’t provide more fuel for the “no TV EVER!” brigade. I hate that extreme as much as I hate the “TV 24/7” faction. I wish people would just start thinking for themselves instead of leaping on to this trendy idea of all television being out to rot your kids’ brains. I both read books and watched TV as a kid. I’d have to say that some television shows were actually instrumental in getting me hooked on reading (a hook that continues to this day): Sesame Street, Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, and especially Reading Rainbow.

    My parents were also immigrants, and the shows helped me learn English much more quickly than I would have otherwise. I was reading in English when I was three years old.

    When I was in elementary school, my parents instituted a rule of one show per day. In middle school, that rule was changed to no TV except on weekends.

  5. Indigo Warrior says:

    Transvestites cause autism?

  6. Richard Nieporent says:

    In our final set of tests we use California and Pennsylvania data on children born between 1972 and 1989 to show, again consistent with the television as trigger hypothesis, that county autism rates are also positively related to the percentage of households that subscribe to cable television.

    Correlation is not causation. Real science requires that you identify an actual mechanism that can cause autism.

    Although our findings are consistent with our hypothesis, we do not believe our findings represent definitive evidence for our hypothesis.

    No kidding! As the old saying goes, lies, damn lies and statistics. They just as soon could have blamed in on rap music, PCs (but not MACs!), Global Warming (Why not, everything else is blamed on it!) or Starbuck’s Coffee.

    As a final point, although as discussed our results do not definitively prove that early childhood television watching is an important trigger for autism, we believe our results provide sufficient support for the possibility that until further research can be conducted it might be prudent to act as if it were. In other words, maybe there should be additional emphasis placed on the recommendation of the American Academy of Pediatricians that early childhood television watching should be eliminated or at the very least quite limited (as discussed in footnote 3, the current recommendation is that there should be no television watching before the age of two and no more than one to two hours per day for older children). We see little downside in taking this step and a very large upside if it turns out that television indeed causes autism.45

    In other words they want us to follow the good old precautionary principle. Even though they have absolutely no proof of their hypothesis we should never the less treat it as if it were factual. There is an old joke that goes as follows. An actor collapses and dies on the stage. While the other actors stand over him in horrified silence a woman in the audience keeps on calling out: give him an enema, give him an enema. Finally, one of the actors says to the woman he is dead how can that help. The woman responds, it couldn’t hurt!

  7. Yet more proof that comedy should be left to the professionals….ba dum bum

    From the Autism FAQ:

    Leo Kanner published his first paper identifying autistic children in 1943, asserting he had noticed such children since 1938 (see reference to Kanner, “Autistic Disturbance of Affective Contact”,

    So autism was prevalent enough ten years before the widespread availability of television, much less cable, to have been identified, characterized and generated a professional paper. Which means that whatever statistical association there may be between cable and autism at most cable might have a contributory effect. At most.

    Kids who might easily have been diagnosed as schizophrenic or retarded were more likely to get an accurate diagnosis of autism by the specialists higher incomes gave access to. The same higher incomes that made cable a minor expense.

  8. I think there’s pretty clearly a genetic connection for “likelihood to autism.” It may be there are some susceptible kids who may go either way – developing or not-developing – depending on early influences. It may just as well be that there’s nothing that can be done to prevent.

    I do hope this helps to put to rest the old “I’m not going to vaccinate my children; I don’t want my children to get autism from the evil vaccines” argument. (That was another case of correlation: autism shows up shortly after the age of most vaccinations, but there’s no evidence the vaccinations CAUSED it.)

    I suspect a lot of it is tied to better diagnosis.

    But still – I’d argue that it’s preferable for a parent to converse with, and encourage active play in, a child, rather than letting them zone out in front of the tv for hours on end.

    When my brother was growing up, I remember watching him watch tv- he never sat in front of it slackjawed like some kids I’ve seen; he was more likely to be playing with lego bricks or drawing or something WHILE he watched. He’s spoken with concern about the “trances” his wife’s nephews seem to go into when the set is turned on…

  9. Young children commonally “go into trances.” (Anyone with experience with young children — parents or teachers — know this.) I think what you want to watch for is the length of the trance and the frequency of the trance. I don’t think it is ‘brought on’ by t.v. — perhaps it is noticed more if both the observer and the child are sitting quietly (i.e., in front of the t.v.). I think also you want to watch for the age of the child when trances continue — from experience, I’d say any lengthy or frequent trance state, or episodic *especially* past the age of _early-mid_ 3rd year, you’ve got something you want to investigate. T.V. doesn’t have anything to do with it — that’s just denial.