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4 things that don’t cause autism

September 2, 2016

Everything from vaccines to vitamins has been blamed for causing autism – but with all the myths flying around, how do we know what to believe?

Despite the common misconceptions, these four things that current research has shown do not cause autism.

#1. Vaccines

This one’s not only the most popular myth, it’s also the most dangerous. The entire anti-vaccine movement was sparked by “scientific” claims in the late 1990’s. While this theory has since been categorically discredited, this hasn’t stopped the legend from living on.

The fact is, there is no evidence that the preservative, thiomersal, can cause autism. What’s more, since 2000, Australia’s National Immunisation Program does not even include thiomersal in its vaccines (Department of Health).

It has also been speculated that the MMR jab (measles, mumps and rubella) could lead to autism. Again, this claim was proven to be unfounded and the data fraudulent (Department of Health).

The scariest thing about this: it’s caused people to avoid the immunisations that have protected us from deadly diseases for years, like whooping cough, measles, or mumps. And who wants to go back to the dark ages?

#2. Parenting

Yes, seriously – it’s hard to believe, but some people actually think autism could be linked to how kids are parented.

This theory dates all the way back to the 1950’s when Bruno Bettelheim, a professor of children’s development, coined the term ‘refrigerator mothers’. He believed mothers who were cold and lacked maternal warmth, could cause their children to develop autism and related symptoms.

This theory was dropped back in the 1970’s when experts agreed there was no compelling, scientific evidence to support the claim.

What this theory did do though, was unfairly breed guilt in a lot of mothers who were parents to children with autism.

#3. Diets

There’s an opinion that what you eat can contribute to the development of autism – and some food tribes, like Paleo, even believe eating a specific diet can cure it. Again, there’s no evidence to support these beliefs.

While diet does not cause or cure autism, there are a number of parents who feel strongly that a gluten-free casein-free (GFCF) diet improves the behaviour of their child with autism.

This is based on a theory that children with autism may have an allergy or high sensitivity to these foods. A number of children with autism do have gastrointestinal issues, so it is thought that changing their diet may reduce pain, and therefore improve behaviour.

While some studies do support this theory, others show no improvement at all. The upshot: more research will need to be done before concrete conclusions can be drawn on the diet front.

#4. Television

If your kids are glued to the screen, this does not mean that they’ll develop autism.

While headlines have claimed that ‘TV causes autism’, these only referred to a study where they found:

In the US, autism rates increased around the same time that cable TV appeared
Autism-diagnosis rates have increased more quickly in rainy places (where they assumed children spent more time indoors watching TV)
It’s a tenuous link at best and certainly doesn’t mean TV is a proven cause!

That said, if your child is diagnosed with autism, experts do recommend limiting screen time and encouraging reading and play instead.

So what does cause autism?

At the end of the day, autism is a complex disability and as far as we know there’s no single cause. Instead, it’s likely to be due to a combination of environmental and genetic factors (Mayo Clinic).

What research has told us is, there do seem to be a few factors that can increase the risk of autism, such as:

  • Your child’s sex: autism is four times more common in boys than girls.
  • Family history: families who have a child with autism have an increased risk of having another child with the disorder.
  • Other disorders: children with certain medical conditions have a higher risk of autism, or autism-like symptoms (fragile X syndrome, tuberous sclerosis, Tourette syndrome and Rett syndrome to name a few).
  • Extremely pre-term babies: babies born under 26 weeks may have a higher risk of autism.

While these factors may increase the risk, it is important to know that falling into one of these categories does not mean that you or your child will definitely develop autism.