Television viewing correlated with Autism

A Cornell University study just published revelas a correlation between TV and autism.

Today, Cornell University researchers are reporting what appears to be a statistically significant relationship between autism rates and television watching by children under the age of 3. The researchers studied autism incidence in California, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Washington state. They found that as cable television became common in California and Pennsylvania beginning around 1980, childhood autism rose more in the counties that had cable than in the counties that did not. They further found that in all the Western states, the more time toddlers spent in front of the television, the more likely they were to exhibit symptoms of autism disorders.

Quote from Slate via Minding the Planet.

This may seem weird but should not be so surprising. Autism is

classified as a neurodevelopmental disorder that manifests itself in markedly abnormal social interaction, communication ability, patterns of interests, and patterns of behavior...
...autism manifests itself in delays in "social interaction, language as used in social communication, or symbolic or imaginative play".
Since autism is clearly related to language learning, we studied it in Philosophy, when I was at Birckbeck College. Children that are autistic have difficulty comprehending that others can see the world differently from the way they do. They will not understand for example that if a character in a muppet show hides something, the other characters in the show won't know that it is hidden.

I have just been reading Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations where through a series of questions he gets to the complexity of language learning, how much of a social process it is, how much it involves games - should in fact be seen as a set of overlapping games. When playing with a human being, there is always immediate feedback between a child and the people and objects around it, which involves smiles, cuddles and frowns, movements, hopping up and down, hiding, etc. The people on kids programs try the best to do that, but they can never directly respond to the child's immediate emotions, and they are in the end only ever a two dimensional picture on a box. So that the objects they move don't have a physical presence for the child. If those objects fall they can't hurt the child, if the people speak about an object, the child can't participate, if the person lies the child can't be deceived.

Children placed all day in front of a TV may not cry, but there is something fundamental that they will be missing.

For more information on this, countervailing views etc. see the lenghty Slashdot discussion on this study.


There are many different types of autism. You can't make a blanket statement like "Television causes Autism" truthfully.

I watched HEAPS of TV when I was a child due to an alcoholic father and an absentee mother, but I do not have autism.

There are lots of children whose parents rationed out the TV viewing carefully and lightly, who still have autistic children.

To say that autism is the fault of the parent in all cases is the mark of someone who does not have children.

Posted by jeremiah johnson on October 17, 2006 at 06:54 AM CEST #

You are right, "causes" is probably too strong a word. I have changed the title to "correlated with".

First the study does not make an absolute causal relation between autism and television watching. They speak of it being a strong trigger. (There has been more than a 10 fold increase in autism in the last 30 years)

Using two different natural experiments, our results strongly support the hypothesis that 
early childhood television watching is a trigger for autism.  Of course, one cannot be sure that 
early childhood television watching is a trigger for autism without a more direct clinical test.  
We outline a feasible test in the Conclusion. 
As a final introductory point, although our perspective that early childhood television viewing may be an important trigger for autism diverges from current thinking in the autism medical research community, the idea is not inconsistent with current thought in the medical community more generally concerning early childhood development. As discussed in Shonkoff and Phillips (2000) (see also Knudsen et al., 2006), recent scientific findings show “...the importance of early life experiences, as well as the inseparable and highly interactive influences of genetics and environment, on the development of the brain and unfolding of human behavior...” (Shonkoff and Phillips (2000), p. 1). Our hypothesis is that it is exactly the interaction between genetics and a particular type of early life experience, i.e., early childhood television watching, that can result in the profound impact on the development of the brain referred to as autism.

In any case, this would not be saying that this has to be the fault of the parent. Fault can only be attributes where the consequences of acting a certain way were known in advance. If this study is correct it would have taken over 50 years to discover this correlation, and so one certainly can't blame anyone.

Posted by Henry Story on October 17, 2006 at 07:14 AM CEST #

watching televison store´s a lot of trash in the brain. There is no Program to deleate all the millions of immages you gather during your life. In the first 3 Jears the brain start´s to work and get´s the basic programms.

Posted by Jerusalem on October 18, 2006 at 04:17 AM CEST #

The television is one of the most powerful education devices on the planet. It is a real shame that it is used as entertainment rather than education.

Posted by jeremiah johnson on October 18, 2006 at 06:31 PM CEST #

I tend to think that the internet is the most powerful educational device on the planet, not TV. It is a read/write medium, where you can participate, interact, get immediate feedback, and all the programs are available at once. Television is a read only medium, with very minimal feedback. Perhaps that is why we like to watch it with our family: the individual family member reactions make up for the lack of intereaction we have with the information coming from the tube.

Be that as it may, from the age 0 to 3, the quality of the programs on television, or whatever is available on the internet, are not going to make a iota of difference to the child, who requires direct emotional attachement to real human beings, to the physical environment around him.

Posted by Henry Story on October 19, 2006 at 03:29 AM CEST #

Wow! Finally a positive effect of television!

Posted by Collin on October 09, 2007 at 04:28 PM CEST #

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