Health and Science News for Parents

Couple quick updates on autism news

written by Tara Haelle

I won’t be able to put up long or analytical posts until after the book deadline, but I’ll try to at least post links to work elsewhere that readers may be interested in checking out. Three pieces I’ve written in the past week or two relate to autism news that I want to highlight, plus a fourth piece that addresses the (utterly ridiculous) study trying to link circumcision and autism.

Does owning a pet help autistic children? Maybe, but a recent study didn't show that. Photo by Camilla Carvalho

Does owning a pet help autistic children? Maybe, but a recent study didn’t show that. Photo by Camilla Carvalho

The first is a post up at Forbes regarding a recent study that found the majority of increase in autism cases in Denmark was directly a result of changes in the diagnostic criteria of the developmental condition and the way the cases are tracked. A variety of studies have come to similar conclusions regarding the increase in autism incidence in the U.S. and elsewhere. The short version is that we don’t know how much – if at all – a “real” increase in autism is occurring at all. A combination of increased awareness, increased diagnoses, increased access to healthcare, and changes in how the condition is identified and diagnosed have all contributed tremendously to the increase and may even account for all of it, though that’s still unclear.

The next bit of news, written up at HealthDay, reported on study purporting to show how owning a pet can help autistic children develop stronger social skills. In reality, however, the study, which was very, very small, didn’t really show that at all. If I had the time, this would be one of those studies I break down in depth to show the various weaknesses and how the media ran with a fun-sounding headline without doing the critical work of really looking at what the findings actually said. The study was worth publishing, but not to show that pets help autistic kids. Rather, it was important to publish to show that we DON’T have much evidence at all that pets help autistic children, or at least not any more than they might help any other child without autism.

Then, a particularly important, if unsurprising, study in Pediatrics, also at HealthDay focuses on the difficulty health care providers have in identifying children who need further assessment for autism, at least during short well-child visits. A typical well-child visit lasts just 10-20 minutes with the doctor, and in that short time, the signs of autism can be easy to miss. Autistic children show plenty of typical behavior, and that typical behavior can obscure the couple instances of atypical behavior. That’s why it’s important for care providers to ask parents autism screening questions, as recommended by AAP, and for parents to be on the lookout for autism signs. A full checklist is here (pdf).

Finally, primatologist Ava Neyer does a great job of pointing out the many flaws in a recent study that attempted to link autism to circumcision. The very idea that someone conducted this study is offensive enough, but it’s less surprising when you consider the ideological biases of the lead author, who has previously tried to link circumcision to impotence and to decreased sexual enjoyment in women. No. Just no.

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