New research has once again upped the ante on autism. A study published this October in the journal Pediatrics found that autism now occurs in more than one percent of children (1 in 100). In 1980, 1 in 10,000 children was diagnosed with autism. The autism rate has risen about 10 percent each year since.
As to whether (and to what extent) this is due to an actually greater incidence or to changes in diagnosis, here is an analysis from WebMD:
Dr. Morton Ann Newschaffer: There is no doubt that numbers of children with an autism diagnosis or special education label has increased tremendously over the past two decades [this was 2005]. These numbers are clearly beyond what we would have anticipated using historical estimates of autism prevalence. The real question is what proportion of this increase is attributable to a real change in the risk of autism and what proportion is attributable to changes in diagnosis/labeling tendencies. . . .I believe that there currently is little strong evidence supporting either hypothesis.
Although thoughtful and well-informed, Dr. Newshaffer's analysis gives us little to go on. And so let me turn to a more impressionistic analysis of children's lives today:
Play, Empathy and TV
by Patty Wipfler, August 2009 column for "The Connected Parent" at Cleverparents.com
Q. It seems to me that children aren't playing with each other the way they used to. Sometimes, it looks to me like they hardly play with each other at all--they act out imaginary scripts, and they're each in their own little worlds, next to each other. What can I do to get them really playing again?
* * *
I have to agree! Something important has happened gradually over the past 20 years to children's play. The play in schoolyards and preschools has slid toward more scripted acting. . . . An important determinant of a child's empathy and flexibility in play is how much TV and video programming he is exposed to. [emphasis in original]. . . .The TV or video experience tends to isolate the child. As he plays, his attention is on the images in his mind, not on the child next to him.
Does acting in terms of an internal script - as opposed to reacting and being sensitive to others - sound familiar? It certainly has tones reminiscent of autism.
As I have said, I fear to wade into this emotional debate, beyond noting that every reputable epidemiological and medical organization (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American Academy of Pediatrics, the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences) says the science - and logic - do not support the thimerosal-in-vaccines explanation. Besides, autism has continued to grow despite mercury-free vaccines.
At the same time, of course, we cannot blame individual parents for something so widespread.
This leaves broad environmental effects. I find it hard to accept some specific toxin has so rapidly seeped into our worlds that it has caused a huge increase in this specific childhood psychosocial malady and no other measurable consequence within such a short period.
Is exposure to video entertainments from earlier and earlier ages a contributing factor to autism?
If this argument is correct, then the massive Baby Einstein industry was not only a giant hoax, but a dangerous one. According to a 2003 study, a third of all American families with children ages 6 months to 2 years old owned a Baby Einstein video. But research has found that, although infants become engrossed in these videos (there are Baby Mozarts, Baby Shakespeares, etc.) , they offer no intellectual benefits. As a result of this finding and threatened law suits, the Walt Disney Company, which produces Baby Einstein, is now offering refunds to purchasers.
What a strange world we live in, where commercial interests market products to parents who pray their children will become intellectually advanced, when the extreme opposite may be true.
Although it does not link autism and TV, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends babies under the age of 2 should not view videos or television at all. Ms. Wipfler goes further: "It may sound radical in the electronic age, but I urge parents to set the policy that they watch TV only when the children are not present, and keep their children away from TV and videos until they are well into elementary school."
That's not going to happen! Of course, one prime motivator for parents' reliance on video babysitters is the rampant fear in our society of sending children outdoors due to the perceived threat from infections, kidnappings, violence, et al.
What a pickle we're in.
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P.S. Several commenters (such as MJ) have questioned the association of television viewing with autism on the grounds that the latter is such a severe condition it can't be likened to a casual, everyday behavior.
There are four key characteristics of an Autism Spectrum Disorder:
1. COMMUNICATION IMPAIRMENT: Individuals with Autism have difficulty in all areas of communication; verbal & non-verbal. There is an absence of language development, or a delay in the development of language in early childhood.
2. SOCIAL RELATIONSHIPS/INTERACTIONS: Difficulty with social relationships range from indifference to others, to highly inappropriate behavior.
3. IMAGINATION & CREATIVITY: Children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder are restricted in their imaginative play. Play is often limited to one or two activities, involving repetitive actions.
4. REPETITIVE & RITUALISTIC BEHAVIORS: Individuals with an Autism Spectrum Disorder develop repetitive behaviors, rituals, and obsessions, which help them to order their world, creating some predictability.
MJ - Don't these characteristics of the disorder suggest TV-inspired behavior? Rather than positing bizarre, unrelated sources for autism (what, if vaccines cause autism, is the relationship between mercury-poisoning and this list?), doesn't it make sense to explore these similarities? Terry's list of measured impairment in heavy youthful TV includes these: that children "uttered fewer vocalizations, used fewer words and engaged in fewer conversations"; and that heavy TV viewing "in early childhood can lead to behavioral problems and poor social skills."
If we consider autism to occur along a spectrum currently, noting more and less severe varieties of autistic syndromes and behavior, doesn't it make sense to view the continuities between a diagnosable disorder and the standard experiences of many children, especially since we can't identify anything else that has risen along with autism rates but which (unlike weather) seems to have such direct links to the traits in question?
P.S.S.: Kids watch more than a day of TV each week
The latest figures from Nielsen have children's TV usage at an eight-year high. Children's health advocates warn of adverse effects.
By Matea Gold
October 27, 2009
More than an entire day -- that's how long children sit in front of the television in an average week, according to new findings released Monday by Nielsen.
The amount of television usage by children reached an eight-year high, with kids ages 2 to 5 watching the screen for more than 32 hours a week on average.
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