TV implicated in autism rise
Submitted by Isabel Marconi
November 26, 2006
In an interesting and unorthodox
study, researchers have determined that television viewing might be
one cause of the dramatic rise in autism cases in the United States.
The study is unorthodox not only
because it examines autism not from the usual standard of perhaps
diet or genetics being a cause -- or even immunizations, which is
frequently blamed for the rise in autism -- but from a standard of
“nurture”. That is, the idea that something in a child’s environment
that can be controlled might cause autism.
Michael Waldman, PhD., a Cornell
University management professor, wondered if television might be a
cause in the autism rise when it occurred to him that in recent
years the number of children diagnosed with autism has increased
substantially. This comes at the same time that children have
experienced increased access to a number of television
opportunities, including cable TV, DVDs and the like.
Waldman contacted some colleagues
in the medical community and asked them to look at the issue, but
nobody would. Waldman, then, decided to look at the issue himself,
utilizing research tools more often seen in the economic community
than typical medical studies.
But the results of his
nonscientific studies bolstered Waldman’s opinions. He found that
there’s a strong link between television viewing and autism.
Waldman was interested in how much
television toddlers watch, but found there are few statistics on how
much television they actually watch. But there are studies, he
found, on how much television families watch, and there are also
statistics that show toddlers watch more television when it’s
raining than when it’s not raining.
Using this information, Waldman and
colleagues looked at autism rates in California, Washington and
Oregon counties. Each of the three states has significant regional
differences in annual total rainfall. Confirming Waldman’s
suspicion, autism rates are the highest in the wettest counties.
But this wasn’t enough information
to back up Waldman’s beliefs. He said it was possible that indoor
toxins could be causing the autism and not the television viewing.
If children are inside watching TV, they are also indoors more, and
if there are toxins in the home, that could be the cause and not
television. So Waldman and his colleagues added a second test: They
studied the rates of cable television subscriptions in California in
In this study, researchers found
that the areas with the highest incidences of cable television
subscribers also had the most autistic children.
Waldman says this further bolsters
his claims because, “our view is there is no obvious thing
correlated with both rain and cable TV access except television
viewing,” he says.
Waldman still would like to see
further studies done within the medical community, but he and
colleagues have recommended parents follow the American Academy of
pediatrics’ recommendations that children under the age of 2 not
watch television. The AAP also recommends that children older than 2
not watch more than an hour or two of television a day.
Leslie Rubin, a child development
expert, disputes aspects of Waldman’s study, arguing it doesn’t
provide a solid link between television viewing and autism. Rubin,
the director of developmental pediatrics at Emory University, is
also director of the center for developmental medicine in Atlanta.
Rubin says the study fails somewhat
because it looks “at trends in the diagnosis of autism more than the
actual prevalence” of autism specifically. Rubin says that while the
proliferation of DVDs, VCRs and television viewing all came at the
same time, that fact alone does not provide an undeniable link of
one thing leading to another.
But Rubin says there could be a
more nebulous link. Since autism treatment focuses on social
interactions, Rubin says children who watch a great deal of TV might
not get those necessary social interactions and might make them more
withdrawn. Children who are autistic or display autistic tendencies
might be unduly harmed by too much television.
“Social experiences are good for
kids as they grow up,” Rubin says. “If children watch TV for most of
their lives, I think there will be some sort of negative impact.
This may well be associated with some diagnostic condition.”
By Dr. Beth Paxton
Dr. Beth Paxton is a family
physician and educator on common health issues today's family faces,
and how to prevent and deal with the health concerns such as
bedwetting, childhood immunizations, and chicken pox.