Friday, April 06, 2007

Excessive television causes Autism?

Good Friday

Excessive television causes Autism? An interesting theory, one that is causing quite an uproar in the Autism community. What qualifies me to comment on this issue? I have a child on the Autism Spectrum.

First, let me give a very basic description of the Autism Spectrum – I say “basic” because it is a disease with a wide range of symptoms from child to child. One thing that really bothers me is when people assume they know what you are going through, or how your child should be treated, just because they know someone who has a child with autism.

From the Autism Society of America:
“Autism is a complex developmental disability that typically appears during the first three years of life and is the result of a neurological disorder that affects the normal functioning of the brain, impacting development in the areas of social interaction and communication skills. Both children and adults with autism typically show difficulties in verbal and non-verbal communication, social interactions, and leisure or play activities. One should keep in mind however, that autism is a spectrum disorder and it affects each individual differently and at varying degrees.”
There are five diagnosis under the umbrella in the Autism Spectrum (formally known as Pervasive Developmental Disorder). My child is what some would call on the “less affected” end of the spectrum. I beg to differ. Yes, he is very intelligent, but I think that can cause even more problems when people think he can control his behavior because he is so intelligent (this was actually said to me by the school district.) Don’t make an assumption until you have walked a mile in my shoes.

Back to the theory. Good Morning America recently did a segment titled “Controversial New Theory Links Autism to TV”. Michael Waldman, a Cornell University economics professor, recently wrote a research paper on this resulting from his own experience with his child. This has caused some rumblings in the Autism community. I think there is some truth to it, though I do not agree fully with him.

His theory is “Excessive TV viewing by children with a genetic disposition to autism makes them more likely to develop the disorder.” He first became interested in this when his own child was diagnosed with Autism. He had noticed his son had been watching a lot of television. When the television was turned off, there was no immediate noticeable change, but after several months his son’s problems were gone.

The first thing to notice here is he is not saying television causes Autism, only it may be one of the triggers for those with a genetic disposition to it. I have heard similar theories about other “triggers”. I think the danger here is the "Refrigerator Mother" Hypothesis of Autism – that is, lack of parental warmth causing Autism. We all know that hypothesis has been disproved, but what is to stop people from thinking that if too much TV causes Autism, then it must be the parent’s fault for allowing their children to watch this much TV? I strongly agree that too much TV is bad for everyone; in fact, even a little TV can be bad (especially with what the media is putting out now). I also think we can all agree that using the television as a babysitter is not a good thing (even if it is only watching educational programs). To say television causes Autism is ignorant, but I don’t think he is saying that.

I do not think television caused my child’s autism. I don’t focus on the cause, but on the treatment. However, I do tend to think there was a genetic disposition, and something triggered it – the vaccination he got when he was one day old, or the double dose of the MMR before he started school, or the freon gas I was exposed to while pregnant with him…only God knows. I DO think television (or computer, or any other device that limits interaction with other people) makes it worse. When he watches TV, or plays a game on the computer, he gets locked into his own world. Short periods, of about an hour or so once in awhile, don’t seem to cause problems, in fact, I use the TV or computer as one of his motivators for good behavior. Any more than that, and there are problems with focusing, listening, eye contact, conversation skills, frustration, tantrums, rigidity, etc. Spending one night at someones home where the TV & the computer is used a lot more, results in a host of problems when he comes home. It is like he is stuck in his own world, and it is a battle to get him out. He needs interaction with other people. He also needs to expand his interests beyond those he is hyper-focused on (like TV and computer), even if those other interests are initially unwanted by him. Yes, it is easier to let him watch TV, but is it better for him?

The article goes on to say that Mr. Waldman “found a statistical connection between high autism rates and areas of the country that experienced bad weather — areas where kids were more likely to be indoors, watching TV.” My first thought was I wondered if he considered a lack of Vitamin D (its largest source coming from the sun) to be an issue. Vitamin D deficiency is not uncommon, especially when the weather is poor, or people spend a lot of time indoors (using sunblock is also a factor). In fact, most of us are probably deficient in this vitamin. Research is showing we need much more than the current RDA guidelines (please see this excellent article that was in Reader’s Digest). The Vitamin D Council says
“Current research indicates vitamin D deficiency plays a role in causing seventeen varieties of cancer, heart disease, stroke, hypertension, autoimmune diseases, diabetes, depression, chronic pain, osteoarthritis, osteoporosis, muscle weakness, muscle wasting, birth defects and periodontal disease.”
Who’s to say that the lack of Vitamin D does not also play a roll somewhere in Autism? There is already a lot of research showing a connection between a deficiency and neurological disorders.

I agree with Mr. Waldman when he said, “I think we should look under ever single, plausible stone." Perhaps we should focus on limiting television as part of the treatment, and not on too much television as the problem.

What do you think?


mcewen said...

There are so many theories aren't there. If only we could find a few more facts!
Best wishes

Anonymous said...

Beth I still think you should have a newspaper column. Your blogs are wonderful. Very informative.

Sorka said...

OH My!! What a joke! Lets see... my son started getting less social and using language skills less and losing focus after his sister was born and we started paying more attention to her than him and let the TV baby sit him Then oooh... after cutting off the constant TV, paying a whole lot more attention to him he got better! hmmm... yeah.. well I think enough said. sum it up in one word... misdiagnosis..
Yes these people should walk a mile in your shoes.. or any other mother who has a child with True autism spectrum children

tkatzer said...

Excessive TV certainly does not cause autism, but probably doesn't help.
Have you read the book "The Boy Who Loved Windows" by a mom with a son severely affected by autism/sensory issues? Available at Mid Continent public Library. I would be interested in what you think. Have you heard of Stanley Greenpan and his theory? In a nutshell, kids with autism have delayed emotional and sensory development.

Anonymous said...

All I can comment on is my own pesonal experience. My nephew as autism. He has been exposed to an enormous amount of tv since 6 months and older. Excessive being hours a day, everyday. He is getting better with a lot of different treatment and behavior options. He is still very low functioning. TV is also ofered as a reward and does the same thing you described. I have been dying to say out loud, but afraid to offend our family and friends with autism, "why is nobody loking at TV?! Hello, everyone? Maybe tv??? we as a society are seeing increases in autisum, we as a society have ben increasingly using tv!!!" on a completely opposite side of things, I have two children. One is 2 years old and the other is 6 months. I just allowed my two year old to start watching one-two hours of tv a week (very slow old classic disney movies with me present and we discuss it as it goes). He never saw more than a coule minutes in passing before now. We read one hour a day since he was interested and able to pay attetion to reading (8 months?). He is off the charts in development especially in language. He is very interactive, very aware, and communicate his needs very clearly. I'd like to think it's not TV, but I don't think it makes sense for us in the first 5 most ciritcal years of developing how our brian works to even try playing with something we just don't know about. Maybe the tv isn't the problem, or maybe it just enhances the problem, but if we don't know (just like vacines) wouldn't we avoid it?