The Personal Is the Political (#484)

“If you’ve met one child with autism, you’ve met one child with autism.” “Every child with autism is different.” “That’s why it’s a spectrum.” I (and I am thinking that you, too, do) hear these phrases often in reference to the special uniqueness of each autistic child when too many generalizations about our kids are offered: “They love water.” “He’s really good at puzzles.” “This [fill in name of treatment] really helped her.”
Wetwalk
And, the autism news item that would not go away today:

TV caused your child to become autistic.

French fries, the iPod (not that it was invented when Charlie was born), the cell phone batteries (not that I ever used one regularly until Charlie was five and I had to drive around New Jersey), air pollution, coffee—not to mention the more familiar theories about the MMR and thimerasol, as well as genes and, of course, bad mothering.

I have seen more than a few references to the “TV causes autism” study, as I noted in If you watch an autistic child watching TV……. And it seems to be part of the apparatus of being the parent of an autistic child that I have only to see the words “autism” or “autistic” in a news article or academic study and I feel as if a huge part of my personal life is under discussion and debate: In Autismland, the personal always gets political.

So, just in case anyone is mining this blog for evidence about the actual TV viewing habits of an actual autistic child, I thought I ought to save said reader some time (since there are almost 500 posts here) and reveal The TV Watching Habits of Charlie, an Autistic Child:

He doesn’t have any.

As a much younger child (toddlerhood), it is true, Charlie was extremely fond of certain TV shows, especially Barney, the Teletubbies, Sesame Street and, to a somewhat lesser extent, the Wiggles. Charlie’s fondness (this is an understatement) for these shows was such that he rarely looked at the TV unless these were on or rather, unless the videos or DVDs with these shows on them were on. (Charlie was never terribly interested in the daily half-hour versions of the Barney show, etc.: He wanted only to see certain scenes and to hear certain songs on those certain videos.) Charlie was a terrible couch potato: He might sit for a few minutes, but then he was off, running up and down the room, jumping and lying face-down on the couch, going upstairs and downstairs. The TV was something he flickered his eyes toward between getting a sensory/exercise workout.

“Aha,” someone might say. “But that was in those early childhood years and it is a correlation between watching TV at precisely that precious time in a child’s young life and the onset of autism that the Cornell study is about!”

I must respond almost sadly: We knew that “something was not right” with Charlie by the time he was 18 months old, months before his being officially diagnosed at just over two years old on July 22nd, 1999. I have to say, I would have been rather glad if Charlie, when he was a baby and a young toddler, had watched TV, because he did not. He did not pay any attention to the smiling, dancing, brightly colored figures on the screen (or to much else); he could have cared less about the collections of Disney videos my cousins, aunts, and sister sent. Now that he no longer has the Barney etc. videos and DVDs, Charlie watches no TV, other than glancing at ESPN if (and only if) his dad is sitting on the couch watching it. I will note that the TV is almost always on at my in-laws’ house—from Good Morning America to Katie Couric to Jeopardy and, now, the baseball playoffs, with several doses of CNN and Fox News—-and Charlie never casts an eye on it. (If TV does indeed cause autism, Grandma and Grandpa would have to be candidates for the autism spectrum………)

In fact, Charlie not only does not watch any TV. He plays no video games and does not have either Nintendo or a Gameboy. We have been teaching him just to look at the computer screen and he often says “all done!” after a minute. Charlie does not get “babysat” by the TV set. He likes to go outside and play in the yard; to ride his bike; to go places, from the grocery store to NYC; to play the piano; and to go for long walks.

Precipitation, the TV causes autism study notes is “likely correlated” with children spending more time indoors; from this, it is suggested that “basically, if early childhood television watching is a trigger for autism, then our finding that young children watch more television when it rains or snows means that autism rates should be higher in communities that receive a lot of precipitation.” Charlie spends more time outdoors than in, whatever the weather—and there was plenty of precipitation today.

“Go walk!” Charlie requested this afternoon. It was raining, not too heavily, but enough to make some fine puddles in the gutters. We donned our raincoats and boots and splashed off on a wet walk. Charlie tamped down yellow and brown leaves and stamped his way through every single puddle. We looked at the trees, at people’s driveways, garage doors, and the colors of their cars; we checked the sky for brightening and were treated to a downpour. We both had to change our pants when we got back home and then Charlie redonned his boots and a raincoat (another one, as the one he had worn on the walk was soaked through) and walked up and down the driveway while waiting for his ABA therapist to arrive.

A wet walk on an autumn day is a fine thing to do with one’s (suitable raincoated and booted) autistic child; with my no longer so little best friend.

(If I may make a general—and a personal, and maybe a political—statement about life every day in Autismland.)

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Comments
13 Responses to “The Personal Is the Political (#484)”
  1. Kathy says:

    Charlie and my boy Mark have a lot in common it would seem Kristina.

    Mark also does not watch television, though he did briefly a few years back. ( Wiggles High 5 Sesame St and Thomas)
    He also enjoyed music clips, though now prefers to listen and rock to the music, rather than to watch it on t.v.

    These days he is not the least bit interested in television, prefering to be out doors ,rain or shine jumping on the trampoline or climbing a tree.

    He loves walking just like Charlie and loves the rain just like Charlie.

    In fact the other day( when we had a few showers) I put his raincoat on and gave him an umbrella and he splashed in puddles of water in the back yard

    He had a great time and did not want to come inside when I called him.

    We will be taking him for swimming lessons this summer as he adores the beach. He is still on a trike but we are working on improving his bike riding skills.

    All in all he is a real outdoor kid like Charlie.

    I do agree however with the statement ‘” If you’ve met one child with autism, you’ve met one child with autism”

    Mark’s paedeatrician has always said that my bloke has the “Mark Farrelly” syndrome. It’s particular to him.

    He is an individual as are all autistic kids

    There really are no hard and fast rules only generalizations.

    The fact that Mark and Charlie have quite a few thing in common is no different than my daughter and her friend who love gymnastics dogs and going to the movies.

  2. Lisa/Jedi says:

    OK. I read the paper (not mercury has the link) & I really appreciate your well-thought-out refutation, Kristina. My main discomforts with the paper are that they contunually refer to autism “developing” in early childhood as if it’s an established fact that this is how autism happens. I don’t see any definitive proof anywhere that this “development” hypothesis has been proven & like you, we were aware of B’s differences from infancy. Another part of the paper that your post clearly refutes is the part beginning on pg. 15 where they look at the “high risk” younger siblings of already-diagnosed children & how long it takes them to visually disengage from the tv screen, assuming that a longer disengagement time will predispose them for autism. As you have clearly stated, though, some autistic children don’t visially engage the screen for very long at all- were they “lower risk” for autism by exhibiting that behaviour? Wouldn’t it have been a good idea for these researchers to look at the actual tv-watching habits of autistic children? Interestingly, by the standards of this study, B is not autistic (they excluded kids with Aspergers, PDD-NOS & Rett’s- see pg. 7) but he was & is a tv-watcher with very good visual engagement of the screen- I wonder how their narrow definition of autism affects their conclusions? I also have trouble with the part on pg. 23 where they go into the gender aspects of the study, which show that boys are more likely to watch tv & more likely to be autistic- as if these really correlate. It feels to me as though they have taken apples & oranges (defining only macintoshes as apples & excluding the rest of the varieties) & found that apples can become oranges under certain circumstances. This quote from pg. 27 sums up my discomfort with the conclusions of this paper nicely:

    “One possibility for why the California data does not exhibit a positive correlation between precipitation and autism is that there is an omitted variables problem. That is, there could be another important variable that is correlated with television watching and also correlated with precipitation in the California data set in a manner that results in no significant relationship between autism and precipitation in our test of equation (4) using California data. ”

    California is their gold standard in this study because the reporting on autism rates is seen as more reliable & goes back farther than any other place in the US. But California does not support their hypothesis…? Another thing that gives me deep misgivings is that they are not able to directly prove the tv-autism link, but only through the mediator of precipitation. As I mentioned in an earlier comment, I know from my own research days that you can prove practically anything you want with statisitics,, depending on how you look at the data.

    Bottom line for me is that I wish this study not only had a better basis in the science/medical realities of autism (since it is speculating on an “effect” from tv watching that produces physical changes in a young child) but had been able to give some useful information as to the mechanism for these possible changes to occur. Their conclusion is a lukewarm “we want to emphasise that young children should not watch tv- just in case”. I know that the purpose of this study is not to assist people like me who are already raising children with autism (although by their standards B is not…) but the attention that this study has drawn in the media is way out of proportion to it’s usefulness in my opinion. Sorry to go on for so long, Kristina…

  3. It took me years to get Patrick to watch tv. I know that sounds silly. It’s not that I wanted him to be a couch potato (he was a bad one…just like Charlie) or that I wanted him to be babysat by the tv. But I wanted him to watch and understand and enjoy it. Just for a few minutes. And I have no idea why I wanted that. Perhaps in the early days, shamefully, I wanted him to do something “normal”. Of course I’ve come a long way since then and so has he.

    He’ll sit for a bit and watch Thomas with his brother but if left up to him he’s basically an outdoor kid. Running, swimming, climbing, hiking, camping, bike riding kind of kid. So now we leave it up to him.

    Man, if tv caused autism don’t you think most kids would be autistic? I think of all of the kids I know who spend hours and hours in front of a screen. It’s so out there as a theory all I can do is laugh.

  4. Lisa says:

    I haven’t read the paper itself, but if what they really found is that autism is correlated with rainy climates, I wonder why their first thought wasn’t acid rain, or the coatings that make raincoats water-repellent, or the things that make indoor air sometimes not so healthy in this era of tightly sealed buildings.

    Charlie is living a wonderful life with all the watermelon and outings and care from his mom and dad. Pat yourself on the back!

  5. Ennis says:

    Short answer, it’s a poorly thought out study. I can give more substantive comments than that, but that’s it at base.

  6. Anonymous says:

    this is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard! if there was any basis, there’d be a LOT more cases

  7. MELANIE says:

    “And it seems to be part of the apparatus of being the parent of an autistic child that I have only to see the words “autism” or “autistic” in a news article or academic study and I feel as if a huge part of my personal life is under discussion and debate”

    I agree, somtimes I feel like they(the media) are outside the windows 😦

  8. gretchen says:

    I could be defensive and say that this is nothing more than a new, thinly-veiled, bad mother theory. Now, on top of everything else, I’m supposed to feel guilty that I let my son watch too much tv?! Phooey.

    Henry does like to watch TV and movies and play on the computer. And he (unlike Charlie) does not like to go outside much. That’s his PERSONALITY. My other son has watched just as much video media, and he loves to be outside and shows no autistic traits.

    How about some studies that will actually HELP our children? Argh.

  9. Oh my gosh!! I could have puked yesterday and TODAY with all the Google News items for TV linked to Autism. Thank you for putting it out there. I too knew much earlier than Sam’s exposure to television that he was Autistic. After we recieved his medical diagnosis (not until almost 3) did my close friends told me I would come to school extremely concerned saying I thought he had Autism, that he didn’t want me to hold him, that he wouldn’t make eye contact. All this starting at 6 months. ArrrrrRrrrrrrrgggggggggggg….to studies!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  10. I thought I was overdoing it to post yet again on this study—-really glad to know that we’re not alone in thinking this study has been over-hyped and then some…..I have emailed Professor Waldman.

  11. Joseph says:

    I have emailed Professor Waldman

    I’m curious to know if it’s a prank.

  12. He emailed me back, quite quickly. Let me know what you hear—

  13. Kathy, I was reading over your comment—-Charlie is the same about prefering music over the TV—I have been thinking that the TV just offers “too much” in the way of sensory stimuli. Charlie does seem to handle/process sounds more easily.

    Nothing like splashing in puddles in the rain and then a nice hot shower!

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