Does television viewing trigger autism?

Gregg Easterbrook says yes, citing this new study.  Here is part of the abstract:

…we empirically investigate the hypothesis that early childhood television viewing serves as such a trigger [for autism].  Using the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ American Time Use Survey, we first establish that the amount of television a young child watches is positively related to the amount of precipitation in the child’s community.  This suggests that, if television is a trigger for autism, then autism should be more prevalent in communities that receive substantial precipitation.  We then look at county-level autism data for three states – California, Oregon, and Washington – characterized by high precipitation variability.  Employing a variety of tests, we show that in each of the three states (and across all three states when pooled) there is substantial evidence that county autism rates are indeed positively related to county-wide levels of precipitation.  In our final set of tests we use California and Pennsylvania data on children born between 1972 and 1989 to show, again consistent with the television as trigger hypothesis, that county autism rates are also positively related to the percentage of households that subscribe to cable television.  Our precipitation tests indicate that just under forty percent of autism diagnoses in the three states studied is the result of television watching due to precipitation, while our cable tests indicate that approximately seventeen percent of the growth in autism in California and Pennsylvania during the 1970s and 1980s is due to the growth of cable television.  These findings are consistent with early childhood television viewing being an important trigger for autism.

I am unconvinced.  Precipitation, in these states, is a coastal phenomenon and is proxying for heterogeneity in the gene pool.  Perhaps the coastal areas attract a more "autism-ready" group of individuals.  In fairness to the authors, they do try to control for income and education and population density and diagnosis capacity, among other variables.  Note two worrying features in the results: in California precipitation is not correlated with autism rates at all (there is a north vs. south split for rain, rather than the coast vs. inland), and precipitation is a better predictor of autism than cable viewing is directly. 

Here is the latest autism news on the genetic front.

Addendum: Steve Levitt is also skeptical.


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