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Is Autism Triggered by Television? October 18, 2006

Posted by Unreasonable in Matters Nuerological.

Kid Watching TVResearchers at Cornell University have published a 67 page paper linking Autism to television. Now you know why your mom was always telling you not to sit so close.

Here’s my summary of the article:

Autism affects one person in 166. It has three major elements:

  1. Delay in language acquisition.
  2. Difficulty with social interaction.
  3. Lack of understanding of what others are thinking.

There is a range called the autistic spectrum. The idea that high functioning autism is a personality type rather than a disorder is becoming more popular. However, on the low functioning end, autism is totally disabling.

Boys are four times as likely to develop autism as girls. It is usually diagnosed before age three.

Autism began to be widely diagnosed during the 1980s. Between 1992 and 1999 there was a 400% increase in cases, partly due to better reporting. As the diagnosis became standard, the number of cases was expected to level off. However, between 2000 and 2004, the number of cases still doubled nationally.

Number of Autism Diagnoses Graph

The current thinking on the cause of autism is that there is a genetic predisposition. There may be some environmental trigger such as vaccines, air pollution, or television.

Autism started being diagnosed in the 1930s, but the historic data is unreliable because of changes in the diagnostic standards. Its not clear whether the rapid increase in the 1980s and 90s is real or not, but if it is, it does coincide with changes in television viewing habits of children.

The study refers to an United Press International article by Dan Olmstead. He found that using national averages there should be 130 autistics among the Pennsylvania Amish. Instead, he only found 3, and one of them was adopted. Since the Amish don’t watch TV, this is suggestive of the link, but there are many other differences in the Amish lifestyle that could be factors. Surprisingly, the article states that most Amish do vaccinate their children these days.


This study makes the link indirectly:

  • First, using data from California, Oregon, and Washington, they find that the amount of time young children watch television is correlated to precipitation.
  • Second, the number of autism diagnoses per county is also correlated to precipitation.
  • Third, using data from California and Pennsylvania, they find that autism is also positively related to the number of cable television subscribers. The drawback of this part of the study is that watching TV may be the result, not the cause of autism. However, its unlikely that having autism makes it more likely to rain, so the first part of the study is not subject to this issue.

The study is a pretty ingenious way to get around sketchy data, but the authors don’t claim to have definitively found the answer. They only suggest that thier results justify a direct study where television viewing habits of children are recorded and instances of autism in those children are measured.

::/. ::Slate

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