first researchers looking into autism decided it was caused by "the
refrigerator Mom". Mothers were cold and withdrawn and didn't give
their children the love and care they needed to develop properly. The
outrage of loving and caring mothers put that to rest in short order
and we have gone on to look at safe and scientific elements like
genes and obesity, despite the clear lack of genetic characteristics
in this epidemic. If it is a genetic problem there should be genetic
markers, but it's too complex for that. If there are any they are
more likely in the junk DNA that we are now told is filled with
signaling elements that control the expression of our genes; and
those signaling elements are more often than not triggered by our
environments. More safe areas have been the toxic effects of the
mercury that was in early immunizations. That was replaced by
Aluminum, and even pitocin was suggested, used in virtually all women
delivered in a hospital. All of these 'safe' elements have been looked
at in comparative studies and come up clean.
What we don't look at are primitive cultures where the problem doesn't exist, or at our own Amish peoples, where it is minimal, or at our children delivered by midwives, where the incidence is less. While we look intently at what differences there are in comparing the brains of autistic and normal children we do not look at how the normal development of autistic children may have been disrupted. Nor is there any consideration for how we may intervene in that development to limit the problem. Researchers at Cornell looked at television, and at the hypothetical link between rainy weather and time in front of the tube, as significantly related, but that gets back to blaming parents.
But the links may leave us no real alternative. Autism is characterized by a brain that doesn't process normally. The Sally & Ann test, for example, is with two dolls, each with a container, and a marble in one of the containers. While Mom exits the room the marble is switched to the other dolls' container. When the autistic child is asked where Mom will look for the marble he does not see that Mom missed out on the switch and should look in the original container; normal children almost always will see this.
One of the first areas of development noted to be different was the facial recognition area of the brain. When autistic children watch TV they do not focus on faces as normal children do, and scans of this area of the brain in autistic children show structural differences. Many have correctly concluded that autism may be a problem in a brain that has suffered some sort of damage or injury during development. The question that we should be asking is how this kind of injury happens, when does this area of the brain develop, and what happens when it doesn't.
Facial recognition is one of the earliest tasks of the neonate; it is done when the nursing mother holds the child on her breast and aligns her face with that of the infant; the position is called en face. It's part of bonding and infants that are nursed have less autism. Bottle feeding can accomplish the same thing if this position is held. This facial recognition is a foundation for all further neurological development in the child. So what can happen to disturb it?
One of the things that can overwhelm it is early exposure to television where the face lasts on average less than 10 seconds. For this and other reasons the American Academy of Pediatricians recommends no TV exposure until age two. No comparative studies have looked at this issue, but the Amish and primitive peoples data certainly should raise a question.
While there is no question that mothers care and love their children there is also little question that few understand the neurological development of their children and that parents are often distracted from the task of looking at their infants faces. The demands of other children, the telephone, the texting, the twittering, Facebook, blogging, television programs, all distract from the process of building this foundation in the infant's brain. Doing prospective studies to check out this link would be both unethical and cruel. But educating parents, both fathers and mothers, of the overwhelming importance of this early neurological development and encouraging them to devote time to this task would be both helpful in a child's development and, if it is indeed a factor in autism, may control the epidemic.
Correlations such as noted above, where autism is not a problem in the undeveloped world, are hard to pin to causes because the connections are likely far more complex than we can see, but when one finds a link like facial recognition and understands its foundational importance in the infant's developing brain we need to ask some questions. In this case we need to educate some parents. Leave the TV and computers off when babies are awake; they need your attention far more at this early stage of their development than do your friends. Even parents working at home, while they are available to provide more facial recognition opportunities, report the tendency to put more hours in their own businesses than they would working for another and admit to frequently giving only partial attention to their children while they work. Children need more than just feeding and changing and our epidemic of autism may very well be the price we pay for not doing more.