Study Suggests Connection Between Television and Autism
> 10/16/2006 11:39:01 AM

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

Whilethe recent, dramatic increase in reported cases of autism can betraced, in part, to a growing awareness of the condition, expertsbelieve that actual percentages are rising significantly. Today, anestimated one in 166 children will be diagnosed with some form ofautism. And while contemporary research allows us to understand thecondition's particulars in a more complete way than at any time in thepast, its causes are still up for debate. A large number of researchersand citizens affected by autism believe that the major culprit is acompound found in many childhood vaccines such as those used to preventmeasles, mumps, and rubella. The presence of excess mercury in thesesolutions, administered in early childhood, is said to negativelyimpact early brain development, resulting in many the perceptualdistortions that define autism. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. explored thistopic in an inflammatory Rolling Stone editorial,charging that the American government downplayed the relationship inorder to avoid damaging the standing of related pharmaceuticalmanufacturers.

Genetic predispositions have long been acceptedas a major factor in determining autism, but experts agree that someenvironmental agent whose presence has expanded during the years inquestion must be responsible for these exponential increases. Cornell's extensive study,though largely speculative, argues that television may be the missingfactor in the autism equation. Beginning with the observation that theautism boom has occurred largely after the advent of cable televisionfor children and home video players in 1980, the study examines severalfactors in attempting to compare rates of TV exposure to young childrenand reported cases of autism. Though most experts recommend limited TVtime 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.

Startingwith the idea that rainy weather forces more kids to spend time insideand ultimately watch more television, researchers focused on areasparticularly affected by frequent bad weather: Oregon, Washington, andCalifornia. After establishing that greater precipitation coincideswith higher levels of autism, the researchers eliminated thepossibility that indoor toxins are to blame with a series of relatedstudies. Finally, moving to more disparate states, they found thathouseholds with cable tv subscriptions were also significantly morelikely to produce autistic chldren.

New science confirms
that the condition affects all areas of the brain, disabling thedevices that allow for communication between different areas. Popularopinion previously saw autism affecting social and linguisticcapacities, but these changes  also affect the processes of perception,problem solving, and memory. In his commentary,Eastbrook argues that repeated exposure to rapid and invasivetwo-dimensional images may result in the same deficiencies. While thecurrent study does not offer conclusive evidence of the link, it doessuggest an immediate need for more extensive research and furtherconfirms the long-held belief that excessive television viewing can bedetrimental to the development of young children. That in itselfwarrants the increased attention of parents around the world.

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