It seems like every other day a new article is posted about some new study or theory about what causes autism. Some of them sound at least somewhat medical, like autism relating to the age of the parents, changes in a gene sequence, or exposure to some chemical. Others are completely kooky like living near suburban highways or the moon phase when the child was conceived. (OK, I made that last one up, but it’s not any more bizarre than some I’ve read.)
People often ask me how on earth we’re supposed to make sense of all these studies and news articles when most of us have little or no scientific background? Very good question. It’s one I think I at last have a response I’m satisfied with. And it’s one I think a number of people won’t like. Here it is.
Stop reading them. All of them.
If you see a headline suggesting anything causes autism, run. If you see a headline suggesting some new treatment for autism, run. Do not click on it. Do not read any part of it. Try to pretend you didn’t even see the headline.
I’m not kidding.
If scientists discover something that actually holds up under exhaustive research and that would make a significant difference in our children’s lives, you will know. There would be no way to remain in the dark about such a momentous discovery. Anything else beyond a rigorously-tested conclusion verified over time by multiple studies is just a distraction to most of us.
You can find a study somewhere suggesting links between autism and literally a thousand different possible causes. They come out about every five minutes. Most of these studies are barely the beginning of the rigorous research required to draw any serious conclusions. And many of them are total crap.
To have any real validity, any findings have to endure the scrutiny of other scientists, be reviewed and tested again and again, and generally withstand the test of time. One small study and a press release do not constitute scientific fact. It is at best step one of a very long process. Many of them are plain worthless.
Reports of these studies get published in the news before their conclusions are barely even tested. You see them online as “Autism may be related to X” where X may be just about anything you could dream up. People pounce all over them if they support or disapprove their favored theories about autism. Many parents have no way to know whether the conclusions are remotely valid or not.
If it’s in the news, that gives it weight and credibility, even if the studies don’t deserve either. This is why I’m telling you to stop reading.
Many of these news articles are written by people with little scientific knowledge. They lack the expertise to question the studies’ authors. They just report whatever the researchers tell them, and believe it or not, often the news writers come to conclusions that even the researchers themselves did not.
When all many of these studies do is confuse us and take away energy we need to spend elsewhere, all for theories that are rarely more than conjecture anyway, I suggest that our best approach is to ignore them.
I’m not qualified to critique the intricacies of most research, particularly without access to the paper, the data, or much of anything else. And frankly, it’s quite likely neither are you.
Occasionally a quality study will rise up in the news. They are often the ones that come with little fanfare. The reality is that most research isn’t all that glamorous or earth-shattering. Discoveries are made slowly but surely through dedicated, meticulous effort, rigorous testing, and careful thought as to what it all means. They unfold over time through the dedication of scientists determined to find the truth. Most studies in the news have not even begun to approach this standard.
I am all for the expansion of knowledge, but think about it. When did any study last do anything but add confusion and stress to your life? How many wrong directions have you been steered in? When did you last learn anything you could use? Assuming you did, did it actually help? It’s more likely these articles left you feeling guilty, confused, misled, or all of the above.
You and I only have finite amounts of energy and time. We need every bit of it just to have a chance to do the essentials each day. I often tell people, “If it’s actually urgent, important, or essential, set it on fire and throw it at me. Otherwise, I’ll likely ignore it.”
Ignoring news reports about autism does not mean you’re shirking your responsibility to learn what you need to know about autism. You are prioritizing. This is triage.
What is most essential right now for you to help your child? I truly believe that 99.99999% of the time news about autism in the media doesn’t meet that standard. Focus on what does.
Give yourself permission to focus on what’s most important. I believe you’ll be glad you did.