Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Why Is It Raining Rain Men?

What causes autism? TV? Havin’ smart parents ‘n’ stuff? A couple of crazy new theories dropped this month to explain the spike in autism diagnoses we’ve been seeing over the past couple decades.

On his relatively new Discover-based blog, John Horgan covers the hypothesis that the qualities that make successful science-y types can lead to autistic children. In Slate, Gregg Easterbrook says TV might turn kids autistic.

As for the first idea, first reported in IEEE Spectrum, a British researcher hypothesizes that autism is an extreme version of a normal human trait called systematizing, the tendency to focus on grouped things and patterns in the world. Scientists and engineers have this trait, and they are meeting and mating more than ever, suggests Simon Baron-Cohen.

In the Slate piece, Gregg Easterbrook—who can always be counted on for a blood-pressure-raising crazy piece of science journalism—trumpets new research suggesting that watching TV before age three is linked autism. However, a quick glance at the new research reveals that it is a non-peer-reviewed work by some economists. This is not immediately damning, but raises those red flags. I’m no fan of Easterbrook, so I did appreciate the wild take-downs in the Slate comments. Actually, many of the comments rip into what seems like pretty shoddy research. I’m not surprised Easterbrook is giving high-profile attention to such problematic stuff. He’s a quite poor science writer.

For my part, I’m still not convinced that autism is one thing, biologically speaking. As I say in the comments section of Horgan’s blog:

Autism seems to be a bit of a trash-can diagnosis. I've often thought that so-called high-functioning autistic people were just extreme types of normal human ways of being. This would be consistent with the systematizer theory. However, some people classified as autistic seem to be so disabled, unable to talk, unable to live independently, that I wonder if their "disease" has different underlying causes than the higher functioning individuals. It is harder for me to see the more severely disabled folks as just being outliers in a normal distribution. This is a problem I have when trying to understand possible causes for all sorts of spectrum disorders.

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