These 8 Things Do NOT Cause Autism

You Can Cross These 8 Items Off the List of Possible Causes

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It seems that every day something new is implicated as a possible cause of autism. Because there is so little solid information about exactly what DOES cause autism, it's easy to get caught up in every media blip. Could it be pesticides? Doggie shampoo? Airplane contrails? All of these and many more have been suggested as possible causes for a rise in diagnoses.

The reality is that we are not even certain that there has been a significant increase in the number of people with autism.

All we know is that, when the diagnostic criteria expanded -- so did the number of people who qualified for diagnosis. And as awareness expanded -- so did the number of diagnoses. Does that mean that more people are actually autistic now than 20 or 30 years ago? The answer is a qualified "maybe."

As of the writing of this article, there are only a very few things that, without a doubt, increase risk of autism. These include heredity, certain medications taken prenatally, and a few types of spontaneous genetic mutations that occur for unknown reasons. But that doesn't stop people from theorizing!

While we don't know exactly why most autistic people are autistic, we do know that at least some of the theories are flat out wrong. Here are some of the theories that we know to be incorrect.

You Can't Catch Autism:

Some people are nervous about allowing their children to come into contact with autistic peers out of anxiety over contagion.

But autism is not an infectious disease; it can't be passed from person to person through a virus, a bacteria, or any other means (except heredity). Even if your child is constantly in contact with a child on the autism spectrum, he or she cannot "catch" autism. You may notice a typically developing child copying the mannerisms of an autistic peer, but no one can become autistic as a result of physical proximity.

Tantrums Don't Cause Autism:

A reader once asked whether allowing her autistic grandchild to "cry it out" when he was an infant could have caused his autism. The answer is no: strong emotions cannot cause autism. And while child abuse can certainly cause emotional problems NOT related to autism, allowing a baby to "cry it out" is not child abuse. The tantrums could well have been related to as-yet-undiagnosed autism, but there is no way that the autism was caused by the tantrums.

Poor Nutrition Doesn't Cause Autism:

Many parents have put their children with autism on gluten and casein-free diets (and other special diets) with good results. That does not mean that they "caused" their children's autism by feeding them wheat or dairy (or French fries or soda). Research suggests that some children with autism have gastrointestinal issues that can cause discomfort, and removing the cause of that discomfort is very likely to improve behavior, attentiveness, and mood. Thus, while a change in diet may (in a small percentage of cases) improve autistic symptoms, poor nutrition doesn't cause autism.

"Bad" Parenting Doesn't Cause Autism:

A few decades ago, Bruno Bettelheim infamously influenced the medical profession with his theory that autism is caused by cold, "refrigerator" mothers. Bruno Bettelheim was wrong. Very, very wrong.

Cable Television Doesn't Cause Autism:

A while back, a study came out that suggested the idea that, since cable TV and autism increased in popularity at the same time, there might be a connection. There is no evidence whatever to support the idea that allowing your child to watch a lot of television could possibly cause autism. On the other hand, once your child is diagnosed, it's a good idea to limit screen time in favor of more interactive pursuits. In fact, limiting screen time is a good idea across the board!

Cell Phones Don't Cause Autism:

In recent months and years, the media has reported on theories that electromagnetic radiation (ER) created by cell phones and wi-fi networks are behind a rise in autism. This theory most likely developed because mobile technology and autism increased at about the same rate over a similar period of time. There is research to support the idea that ER does have an impact on the brain -- but so far no credible connection has been made between ER and autism. Certainly parents are not causing autism in their children by using their cell phones.

Difficult Family Situations Don't Cause Autism:

One parent was told her son was autistic because "he had too many siblings." This is nonsense. Children cope with divorce, death, and much more- -and while there may be psychological implications, such experiences cannot cause autism. If a child does become withdrawn or unhappy, however, it is certainly possible that he or she is suffering from a non-autism-related mood disorder which should be diagnosed and treated.

Spanking Doesn't Cause Autism:

Blows to the head, lack of oxygen, and other physical trauma can certainly cause brain damage. Brain damaged children may have behaviors similar to those of autistic children, or even be diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. But a swift whack to the rear end, while it may be a controversial approach to child rearing, cannot cause autism in a toddler.

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