Charles H. Dyson Professor of Management Michael Waldman’s theory suggesting that watching television may trigger autism in young children received both praise and backlash when it was published in The Wall Street Journal on Feb. 27. The article revealed the results of Waldman’s research as well as the work of Prof. Sean Nicholson, policy analysis and management, and postdoctoral associate Nodir Adilov, both of whom worked with Waldman.
According to the national organization Autism Speaks, autism is “A complex neurobiological disorder that typically lasts throughout a person’s lifetime. It is part of a group of disorders known as Autism Spectrum Disorders. Autism impairs a person’s ability to communicate and relate to others.”
Waldman’s interest in the topic takes root in his personal life: his son was diagnosed with ASD at a young age. He fully recovered about three years later; according to Waldman, his son’s recovery came after many therapies and a sharp reduction in time spent watching television.
“My coauthors and I conduct what economists call two natural experiments — we test to see whether autism rates vary with precipitation and cable television subscription rates in ways consistent with television being a trigger for autism. We find evidence supportive of the hypothesis in each case. What makes me very suspicious of television is that we find supportive evidence in ‘both’ cases,” Waldman said.
Gregg Easterbrook, who writes for the Washington Post’s Slate magazine, agreed with Waldman’s theory.
“Today, Cornell University researchers are reporting what appears to be a statistically significant relationship between autism rates and television watching by children under the age of 3,” he reported in his Oct. 16 article “TV Really Might Cause Autism.” “They found that as cable television became common in California and Pennsylvania beginning around 1980, childhood autism rose more in the counties that had cable than in the counties that did not. They further found that in all the Western states, the more time toddlers spent in front of the television, the more likely they were to exhibit symptoms of autism disorders.”
When the medical community failed to take interest in Waldman’s theory, he opted to continue with his ideas and formed a research team consisting of fellow economists.
“We use state-of-the-art statistical techniques to look at the hypothesis. I am quite confident that we have conducted a high quality study,” Waldman said. “Our findings are clearly suggestive of a television-autism link, and direct testing of the hypothesis by the medical community is clearly warranted at this time.”
Along with attention from the press came criticism from the parents; many feel this theory places the blame for the disease and the suffering on the parents themselves.
Virginia Breen, a mother of three autistic children, opposed Waldman’s theory in a March 10 article entitled, “Another Simplistic Blame-the-Parent Theory about Autism?” Breen’s article also appeared in The Wall Street Journal.
“TV watching can’t explain why our children are still excreting elevated levels of mercury, lead and aluminum. TV watching can’t explain why our younger daughter, who has never liked to watch TV, can’t speak and must tap out her words on a communication device. Genetic mutations and environmental triggers have caused damage to their minds and bodies,” Breen wrote.
“Families with autistic children struggle 24 hours a day, and we are flabbergasted every time one of these simplistic and unsupported blame-the-parent theories is given media attention. It is a long, hard road that we travel to recover our children from this serious affliction, and such coverage is exasperatingly harmful.”
Judy Mesch, former associate director of the University of Miami’s Center for Autism and Related Disability has worked with autism for over 30 years. According to Mesch, extensive autism research has found autism is genetic and neurological in its origin and that individuals are born with autism. This counters Waldman’s theory.
“The core way that autism develops is neurological and inborn,” Mesch said. “There is not one known cause for autism. The only thing that research at this point has definitely shown is that there is a genetic component to it, although researchers haven’t found an ‘autism gene’.”
“Autism manifests itself in two different ways. The child can show signs of autism from infancy, which allows the parents to know early on; or the child’s development is totally normal until he or she is about 18 months. Between 18 months and three years of age, verbal and social interaction skills are lost and autism’s development is seen,” Mesch said. “Either way, if an individual is born with autism it will show itself at some point in the child’s first 3 years of life.”
As for complete recovery, Mesch says most autism professionals worldwide do not believe one is possible.
“My personal feeling and the opinions of most autism professionals in the world is that you do not recover from autism; it’s lifelong and you learn to cope and live with it. You have autism; that is who you are,” she said.
Despite Mesch’s personal feelings on autism, the work done by Waldman and his team highlight the great deal of research being undertaken in an effort to combat the illness.