Does Television Cause Autism?

Over at Slate, Gregg Easterbrook proposes an audacious hypothesis: the rise of television viewing among infants is responsible for the current autism epidemic.

The idea is wholly speculative. No scientist has shown a link between autism and television, but so far as I could determine no scientist is working on this question, either--and maybe someone should be. Beginning in about 1980, TV watching in early childhood began to rise, coincident with the proliferation of affordable VCRs and cable channels offering nonstop cartoons and kids' shows. The child's brain is self-organizing in the first few years of life, and visual stimuli have much to do with how it organizes. Humans evolved while responding to three-dimensional visual stimuli. The advent of ubiquitous TV for young kids amounts to an unplanned experiment that exposes developing brains to tremendous doses of colorful, moving, two-dimensional visual stimuli. Coincident with this experiment, there has been a sharp rise in the number of children who, through autism, lose their ability to relate to the three-dimensional, normal world.

Easterbrook's hypothesis isn't as crazy as it seems, although I think he focuses on all the wrong symptoms. In his article, he stresses the two-dimensional nature of TV, as if autism was simply a matter of bad depth perception. He also focuses on problems with the visual cortex, but vision seems to be one of the few mental capacities that aren't affected by autism.

So how might TV be a cause of autism? (Keep in mind that my speculation, like Easterbrook's, has no basis in fact or experiment. It is pure hypothesis, or what my boss used to call "unempirical bullshit".) First, we should have a clear sense of what the core symptoms of autism actually are. While this remains a controversial topic, most scientists define autism in terms of a child's social and emotional isolation. ("Aut" is Greek for "self," and autism translates as "the state of being unto one's self." When Dr. Leo Kanner first diagnosed a group of eleven children as autistic in 1943, he described the syndrome as one of "extreme aloneness.")

In recent years, neuroscientists have discovered a possible source of this emotional isolation: a faulty mirror neuron system. When most of us watch a face express an emotion, our mirror neurons light up as if our own face was expressing that same emotion. This leads us to instinctively empathize with others. Autistics don't make this connection. They see the angry face as nothing but a set of flexed facial muscles. A happy face is simply a different set of muscles. But neither expression is correlated with an emotional state. Autistics are blind to the minds of others.

Although emotional isolation remains the defining characteristic of autism, autistic children also display a wide spectrum of other symptoms. The elegance of the mirror neuron hypothesis is that it provides likely explanations for these seemingly disconnected deficits. As psychologist Hugo Theoret observes, "If you imagine the behavioral and social deficits that would come from a failure of the mirror neurons, you imagine a pathology just like autism." For example, mirror neurons provide a simple anatomical source for one of the more perplexing symptoms of autistic children: their lack of motor coordination. Mirror neurons are located in our motor cortex, and help us learn and master physical movements. Autistic children seem to lack this ability, and learning new physical activities remains deeply frustrating. Mirror neurons have also been implicated in the development of language, an anatomical fact that seems to explain the severe linguistic impairments of autistic children. (Please remember that the connection between mirror neurons and autism remains very tentative.)

So how might TV be one of the causes of the "autism epidemic"? To be honest, I have no idea, and neither does Gregg Easterbrook. But a possible answer focuses on the way the newborn brain organizes itself in response to the stimuli it receives. If an infant's world is suffused with cartoons and television shows instead of normal human interaction, then it wouldn't be so outlandish to imagine a brain that is ill-equipped at understanding and interpreting other people. In other words, autistic children are bad at generating a theory of other people's minds because they didn't have very much practice at it. Their mirror neuron systems missed some critical period of experience.

Sounds silly, right? It probably is. Nevertheless, we shouldn't forget that scientists used to think that babies didn't need a loving touch. Now we know better. Infants deprived of cuddling never recover. It's remotely possible that a similar phenomenon occurs with visual stimuli. Brains exposed to cartoons instead of three-dimensional facial expressions might be permanently altered.

Needless to say, my hypothesis has too many caveats to count. For starters, we should resist ever suggesting that autism is simply caused by some aspect of parenting. (This was Bruno Bettelheim's terrible mistake.) Such oversimplifications always do more harm than good. The fact is, autism is a terribly complicated syndrome, and consists of a wide spectrum of symptoms, many of which probably have different causes. (If I were a betting man, I'd wager that in a few decades we'll realize that what we now call autism is actually several different diseases.) That said, I sure wish some scientists would look into Easterbrook's outlandish idea. Even if TV only has some very minor effects on the development of mirror neurons in children, such a finding would have profound implications.


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I have a son with autism. He saw Sesame Street since his born. Actually he is 2 years old and a half. Thank you

By Antonio Navarro (not verified) on 06 Sep 2006 #permalink

Good grief, everyone knows television is a "cure" for autism. Not really, but Autistics who watch television have a way of studying human interactions and the pragmatics of speech from a safe space, not that they learn perfectly, but they can learn alot about people from television.

As fishery scientist Henry Bryant Bigelow said when his brother told him he saw a horse blow by overhead during a hurricane, "Interesting if true." But based on my own anecdotal second-hand experience -- i.e., the one family I know with an autistic child -- it seems a stretch, at least with them, as they have and watch no TV.

On the other hand, I'm in favor of just about any idea that discourages TV watching ...

Please, don't ever post about anything that Easterbrook speculates, he's a consistent source of mis/dis-information, it's extremely unlikely that autism develops due to anything as simple as TV. Much recent evidence suggests that autism is due to neuroinflammation caused by genetic, environmental, and immunological factors, see this excellent paper (Ann Neurol. 2005 Jan;57(1):67-81). I'll take good pathology over fMRI studies any day..

By Crusty Dem (not verified) on 07 Sep 2006 #permalink

Autism is a complete mystery, and it is probably simplistic to embrace that T.V. "causes" autism at this point. Still, I teach high school and notice that many families of children with autism use T.V. and video games to help cope with the exhausting nature of the disorder. A high-functioning child with Autism will often spend many hours playing a video game, leaving time for his/her family to get a much-needed rest. While I understand the need for this rest, I have often wondered about the "chicken and the egg." I wonder if technology use can worsen Austism's symptoms. Further, I wonder if infants whose parents are too "plugged in" do not provide the face and interaction time these infants need to develop proper communication skills. Infants crave conversations with their parents, but infants can be very boring creatures. I imagine that the lure of cell phones, computers, television, and other attention-absorbing technology could keep some people from interacting one-on-one for extended time with their infants. (I also wonder about poor or large-group care situations in the context of this needed attention.) While these sorts of things probably do not "cause" autism, I can imagine that they could make it difficult for an infant with a predisposition to Autism to learn proper communication patterns. I wish someone would study this, as Autism is a devastating disease for children and for their families. Any progress in finding Autism's causes, treatments, and cures is good progress.

By Jill Parrott (not verified) on 06 May 2007 #permalink

I have just turned 50 years of age and discovered i have some autistic spectrum behaviours. I am the first born male (2nd child born) of an eleven children family. 5 girls and 5 boys living.
I had a career of 25 years diagnosing and correcting defects and problems in telecoms. a track record in analysing evidence and resolving failures.
Autism is in this context only a class of symptoms. It is not the defect.
There will NOT therefore be a direct link from cause to effect.
Statistical methods will therefore only yeild when a strategic screening system has been designed,
Such a screening model should track the development of the normal male brain.

Sex is obviously the starting point for such a model. I would offer the idea that females escape the trauma due to differences in hormones which allow a different perspective for the developing brain. Television viewing represents a number of inputs (positive and negative) and WILL result in tantalising statistical results. Eventually this information should find a place in the whole picture.
Good luck with the work.

By mark carew (not verified) on 25 Apr 2008 #permalink

First, there was colour television. Then there was cable TV. And then came VCRs. Then computers, then Nintendo and Playstation, specialty networks, DVDs, and the list goes on. What will be next? The increase in autism is neverending as it seems. Every time a new visual technology comes into this world, it's a green light for a massive increase in autism.

This comes from someone who is autistic (yes I have autism), and I do believe that such linkage to television causing autism seems to be reality. I watched Sesame Street as a kid, and I continued until my mother banned when I was just entering sixth grade in 1984. She did that in an effort to broaden my interests, but to no avail, as I had to resort to a secondary stimuli - my comic books. They were removed in 1987. If you were an autistic individual born in the 1970s like I was, your parents have likely experienced sky-high stress levels because of the lack of awareness of autism back then, and chances are their stress may still linger to this very day.

As for preventing the risk of autism from increasing any further, my suggestion to you parents-to-be is, after your child is born, do not expose the child to television until he/she is about 9 or 10 years of age. Whatever kids learn on Sesame Street kids can learn more easily in real-life kindergarten. Such cartoons and visual stimuli are not just stimuli - they are actually "drugs" in my opinion.

I think such specialty networks, such as Treehouse TV (in Canada), should be made an On-Demand Channel, and people who want it would have to pay for it. In fact, kids shows during the daytime should be banned and reserved for the On Demand channel only. The big three American networks already did eliminate Saturday morning cartoons back in the 1990s, and even though I hated it back then, I realize now it's most likely for the better.

The sad thing is, we autistic people cannot reduce our visual stimuli greatly, but when you reach your 30s (I am approaching 40 in a few years), you'll likely have an understanding of what to do with your time instead of sitting in front of the TV or other visual stimuli. Such stimuli does lead to limited interests, and limited interests will end up being obsessions, and can lead to problematic behaviour and maybe even crime (and no, I never did anything criminal ever, thank goodness).

And it's a wonder that Sesame Street got spectacular ratings and is on the air for 40 years now. I think that the bulk of Sesame Street's ratings came from autistic viewers who would end up being hooked on the show. If the ratings decline, it would be a decline for the better, but the show will not go off the air. It's actually "R-rated" for autistic kids, IMO.