Study Suggests Connection Between Television and Autism
> 10/16/2006 10:29:57 AM

In a study contradicting the widespread belief that the presence of mercury and other heavy metals in childhood vaccines contributes to autism, Cornell University researchers demonstrate what appears to be a causal relationship between television viewing by young children and a growing incidence of the disorder. Slate's Gregg Easterbrook follows up his previous essay on the same topic by citing the study as further implication that the two factors are related in a significant way.

While the recent, dramatic increase in reported cases of autism can be traced, in part, to a growing awareness of the condition, experts believe that actual percentages are rising significantly. Today, an estimated one in 166 children will be diagnosed with some form of autism. And while contemporary research allows us to understand the condition's particulars in a more complete way than at any time in the past, its causes are still up for debate. A large number of researchers and citizens affected by autism believe that the major culprit is a compound found in many childhood vaccines such as those used to prevent measles, mumps, and rubella. The presence of excess mercury in these solutions, administered in early childhood, is said to negatively impact early brain development, resulting in many the perceptual distortions that define autism. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. explored this topic in an inflammatory Rolling Stone editorial, charging that the American government downplayed the relationship in order to avoid damaging the standing of related pharmaceutical manufacturers.

Genetic predispositions have long been accepted as a major factor in determining autism, but experts agree that some environmental agent whose presence has expanded during the years in question must be responsible for these exponential increases. Cornell's extensive study, though largely speculative, argues that television may be the missing factor in the autism equation. Beginning with the observation that the autism boom has occurred largely after the advent of cable television for children and home video players in 1980, the study examines several factors in attempting to compare rates of TV exposure to young children and reported cases of autism. Though most experts recommend limited TV time for kids three and older and no TV altogether for younger kids, the average three year old now watches nearly four hours of TV a day.

Starting with the idea that rainy weather forces more kids to spend time inside and ultimately watch more television, researchers focused on areas particularly affected by frequent bad weather: Oregon, Washington, and California. After establishing that greater precipitation coincides with higher levels of autism, the researchers eliminated the possibility that indoor toxins are to blame with a series of related studies. Finally, moving to more disparate states, they found that households with cable tv subscriptions were also significantly more likely to produce autistic chldren.

New science confirms
that the condition affects all areas of the brain, disabling the devices that allow for communication between different areas. Popular opinion previously saw autism affecting social and linguistic capacities, but these changes  also affect the processes of perception, problem solving, and memory. In his commentary, Eastbrook argues that repeated exposure to rapid and invasive two-dimensional images may result in the same deficiencies. While the current study does not offer conclusive evidence of the link, it does suggest an immediate need for more extensive research and further confirms the long-held belief that excessive television viewing can be detrimental to the development of young children. That in itself warrants the increased attention of parents around the world.

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