Does Television Cause Autism in Infants and Toddlers?

We are still very much in the dark about what causes autism, and why the number of cases of children diagnosed with this puzzling disorder continues to rise. New theories are being suggested, including the idea that television viewing by babies and toddlers under the age of three somehow triggers autism spectrum disorders in children who have a genetic predisposition.

A New Theory

It seems like a ridiculous hypothesis, but professors at Cornell and Purdue University are suggesting there’s a link to early television viewing and autism. Professor Michael Waldman and Sean Nicholson of Cornell University, and Nodir Adilov of Purdue University have assimilated a large amount of statistical data to make this interesting conclusion. Their argument is primarily based upon the correlation between precipitation (rainfall) in certain geographical locations, and the availability of cable television in the households in those areas. Since higher precipitation is positively linked with more television viewing, and cable television subscriptions would also indicate active television-viewing, they hypothesized that if there is a link, we should see higher numbers of children diagnosed with autism in those areas. Not only did they see the higher numbers, but also saw a correlation between the rising number of autism cases as the historical number of cable television subscriptions rose in the 1970s.

They also looked at statistical data from the Amish communities who customarily do not permit television or any electronic gadgets in their households, and found their numbers of autism diagnoses in their populations to be astronomically low.

While this television-as-a-cause theory should prompt further study, it certainly does not answer many important questions. For example, the hypothesis does not provide any specific explanation for how television viewing would cause these significant brain changes in children. And there may be other factors to consider. What if higher precipitation levels only means that these children are indoors for longer periods of time, exposing them to more indoor toxins? And how do we know that these young children are actually viewing the glowing television screen, rather than playing nearby on a blanket? There is no way to tell how much television these children diagnosed with autism actually watched before the age of three.

Should I keep my infant or toddler away from the television, just in case?

I certainly don’t think that there’s enough clear-cut information here to warrant tossing out your television set. However, as more research is being done, it wouldn’t hurt to limit your toddler’s television access as much as possible.

Carol Stock Kranowitz, an expert in Sensory Integration Dysfunction, said that a young mother once approached her, describing a wonderful new video game she had purchased for her toddler. She explained that the game would allow the child to click on oranges and drop them into a bucket, counting them for the child. This mother wanted Carol’s opinion of such a game. “Why don’t you get him five oranges and a bucket?” Carol replied. Her point was that we are providing children at a very early age with simulated experiences instead of real ones. This toddler would have a much greater ability to learn if he were allowed to grasp and squeeze the oranges, feel the rough texture, smell the aroma, experience the action of grasping and letting go, visually see the oranges disappear into the bucket, and learn to count them himself. Whether or not television causes autism, isn’t it a good idea for parents to provide their children with as many hands-on experiences as possible, rather than plop them in front of a glowing screen?

My thoughts…

Personally, I’m doubtful that television causes autism. I saw unusual symptoms in my son Kyle when he was still a newborn in the hospital. He seemed to be unique right from the start, and I did not observe an “overnight change” that some parents report. But perhaps there are numerous causes for autism, and not just one simple explanation. I’m grateful that we still seem to be actively seeking answers.

Kristyn Crow is the author of this blog. Visit her website by clicking here. Some links on this blog may have been generated by outside sources are not necessarily endorsed by Kristyn Crow.

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