Does TV watching in childhood trigger autism?

The evil box

Also in this week's column:

Does TV watching in childhood trigger autism?

Autism is at epidemic levels. Authorities point out that 30 years ago estimates were that one in 2,500 children suffered from autism. Now the figure is one in 166. Could we be diagnosing autism differently today? Or is something else really happening?

Researchers at Cornell University suggest a connection between early childhood television viewing and the onset of autism. In fact, they argue that "early childhood television viewing could be an environmental trigger for the onset of autism".

Economist Dr Michael Waldman and colleagues from Cornell's Johnson Graduate School of Management claim that children from rainy counties in the US watch more television. When autism rates are compared between rainy and drier counties, the relationship between high precipitation and levels of autism is positive.

The Cornell team also found that those counties that had earlier access to cable TV (in the 1970s and 1980s) also have higher diagnosis rates of autism. The team admits that their analysis is "not definitive" and more research needs to be done.

But before jumping to their causal conclusion, there is another factor to consider. Those with earlier access to cable TV also are more affluent and probably more status-conscious. Parents from such status-conscious communities may feel that having a child diagnosed with autism is better socially than having them diagnosed as mentally retarded. Their doctors know this and try to please them with the autism, not mental retardation, diagnosis.

Stephen Juan, Ph.D. is an anthropologist at the University of Sydney. Email your Odd Body questions to s.juan@edfac.usyd.edu.au

Sponsored: Designing and building an open ITOA architecture