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TV Implicated in Autism Rise in US

Author: Dr. Beth Paxton

Published: 2010-07-16 : (Rev. 2010-07-19)

Synopsis and Key Points:

Television viewing might be one cause of the dramatic rise in autism cases in the United States.

Main Digest

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.

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 Pennsylvania.

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."

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.

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