As more children are diagnosed with autism than ever before, the disorder largely remains a mystery in the medical community.
Now, Michael Waldman, a Cornell University economics professor, has written a research paper suggesting that scientists study the connection between early childhood television viewing and autism. His basic thesis: Excessive TV viewing by children with a genetic disposition to autism makes them more likely to develop the disorder.
Waldman became aware of the possible link when his son, 2½ at the time, was diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. His son's troubles began after the birth of the Waldmans' second child, a daughter. The summer after the baby girl was born, life became hectic at the Waldman home, and the boy began watching more TV. Within a few months, the boy's behavior deteriorated and soon he was diagnosed with autism.
"The first thing we did was follow the specialists' directions. There were special classroom settings, a psychologist, etc. I never thought about not following their advice," Waldman said.
Evaluating the Environment
However, his immediate reaction was that the change in his son's behavior must have been triggered by something in his home environment.
"There was a huge change in his life when my daughter was born. He was 2½ when he was diagnosed, and usually the diagnosis comes much earlier. Within four months of my daughter being born, he was diagnosed with severe autism spectrum disorder," Waldman said.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, autism spectrum disorders can often be reliably detected by the age of 3 years, and in some cases as early as 18 months. But it is estimated that only 50 percent of children are diagnosed before kindergarten.
Considering the circumstances of his son's diagnosis, Waldman thought about what had changed since the birth of his daughter.
"I realized that he had been watching much more television during that time, because we were so busy with my daughter. So I turned off the TV," he said. "On a day to day basis, we didn't notice a change. But week to week and month to month, the change was dramatic. He was making rapid progress. Within six to eight months, all of his attention and language problems were gone."
Waldman didn't stop there. He continued researching and, and using his skills as an economist, found a statistical connection between "the dramatic increase in autism diagnosis rate ... and the simultaneous dramatic increase in early childhood viewing."
Further, he found a statistical connection between high autism rates and areas of the country that experienced bad weather - areas where kids were more likely to be indoors, watching TV.
Waldman's findings have been less than popular with parents. His son's own psychologist was unmoved by his theory. Members of the medical community have criticized Waldman's study because he's an economist, not a doctor. They also argue that just because two variables are related does not mean someone can claim that one causes the other.
But Waldman maintains he's not trying to pin autism on any one source, or make the claim that watching TV at a young age causes the disorder. He believes scientists should look into every possible cause for autism.
"I'm not trying to blame anybody, but one in every 150 children is diagnosed with autism, and I think we should look under ever single, plausible stone," he said. "I don't want to make anyone feel bad, including my wife. But I've found some intriguing evidence, and two development pediatricians are seeing the same thing. I don't think you can turn away from it."