Monday, October 16, 2006

Does TV Cause Autism?

Gregg Easterbrook writes in Slate about a study out of the Johnson School at Cornell University, a copy of which study you can get here. The authors, who are all economics and public policy types, argue that watching TV during early childhood causes autism. The study notes a recent explosion in autism in the US:
Thirty years ago it was estimated that roughly one in 2500 children had autism while today it is estimated that approximately one in 166 is diagnosed with the condition – more than a ten-fold increase.
The methodology is amusing:
we first establish that the amount of television a young child watches is positively related to the amount of precipitation in the child’s community.
Yes, that's right, they first correlate the amount of TV watching with the amount of rain.
Employing a variety of tests...there is substantial evidence that county autism rates are indeed positively related to county-wide levels of precipitation.
Finally, they discover a link between cable TV and autism:
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.
I am skeptical of all this, in no small part because this is three econ guys doing a public health survey. Also, Gregg Easterbrook isn't all that great when it comes to science.


dicconzane said...

So nothing to do with better being able to diagnose the condition and general advances in medicine and fewer and fewer rural and cut off areas etc then. On that basis there would be no autism at all before the condition was first given a name. I don't know when that was but does that mean some invention around that time is the cause of all autism? I wonder. Perhaps we should ban all inventions from the time autism was first given a name. And what about aids? If the first diagnosis was at the same time say that solar power was invented does that mean solar power should be banned? I agree there are just way too many other variables that have not been properly taken into account.


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Woman at the well said...

What I think is that it may not affect people in a way to be noticed now or in the coming years, but... if you take thousands of years into consideration, then we´ll have a large population of autistics. But maybe they´ll be normal by then. Get it?

warm fuzzy said...

Wow. This is just weak. I totally agree w/ dicconzane.

Couldn't the cable t.v. connection have more to do with the fact that if you can afford cable you problably can afford (or are afforded) health insurance & therefore more likly to take your child to the doctor to get diagnosed.

Anonymous said...

i'm anxious to read the full report to find out whether we need to increase or decrease our annual rainfall in order to curb autism. then all we'll have to do is figure out how to reliably regulate our annual rainfall. problem solved!

Corri said...

I've also considered this.
Besides the "Wow, better diagnostic procedures," factor, it also seems that the steady increase in the age at the birth of one's first child that's been happening in the US and Europe might play into it as well (as the age of both the mother and father seem to have on effect on the risk of a child being born autistic).
Annyway, just a thought.
Or we could ban TV, rain, and solar power.

R2K said...

It must cause or accelerate ADD I bet.

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Matt said...

I've heard that the children of older fathers tend to have schizophrenia more frequently, so that wouldn't be so surprising, I think. Also, although I tend not to be an environmentalist type person, I wonder about the various weird metals in the water, air, and food supply.

resurrected scumbag said...


Anon said...

Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant.

Anonymous said...

I seriously doubt that watching Television causes Autism. Not a very convinving argument by the author anyways!

Gill said...

Anyone read- The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time? excellent book told from the point of view of a boy with autism.