First things first: I'm not an autism researcher. I write stuff. Sometimes said stuff is about the brain and science; other times it's about spelling, trains, skiing, Japan or whatever other assignment is on my plate. So don't mistake any musing here, about autism or otherwise, as expertise.

But last spring I wrote a story about autism for
Wired. That reporting experience, as well as a terrific book on the subject, Not Even Wrong, written by my friend Paul Collins, have put me on the lookout for autism articles, or at least programmed my too-often-skimming eyeballs to slow down a little when they see the letter string a-u-t-i-s-m.

One of the perpetually striking aspects of the autism labyrinth is just how susceptible we are to quick and concise explanations for a condition--technically a set of behaviors--that is anything but easily explainable. (Diction digression: I try not to use the word
puzzle when talking about autism. Not for any high-minded purpose, but because the descriptor is just too pithy to stomach, not to mention the puzzle pins, logos, journal cover art, posters, necklaces and other movement-associated objects and images that, I think, tend to reduce this wide spectrum of human experience--and the complex emotions that go with it--to a trinket, a la the pink ribbon. Besides, I can't forget what one interviewee once told me: I'm a person, not a puzzle.)

In the past couple of days--hence the urge to blog--I have run into a claim that pesticide exposure "links to" autism; a Yale study about babies breaking off eye contact and a possible connection to autism; and a piece from Slate with the inevitably uber-grabby headline: "TV Really Might Cause Autism." (The
Slate article is two years old, but I never saw it so it's new to me.) I asked one scientist what he thought of this theory and he responded by way of asking: "Is there a word just after bullshit, in terms of vulgarity?" What do I think? I don't know what causes autism, and I think a lot of scientists don't even know exactly what autism is, let alone have a handle on what might cause it. But what I do know is this: News about autism research often caters to, and showcases, our failure to be leery of the theory of the week. This complaint and concern about the disappearance of critical thinking isn't new, but it's increasingly alarming. Much more so, one might argue, than issues like rising rates of autism.
Posted
AuthorDavid Wolman