Because the awareness and (arguably accordingly) the numbers of autism, are on the rise, and yet it still remains mysterious and misunderstood, “autism” is an easy term to toss around when you want to sensationalize your latest cause. Whether its cell-phone towers or immunizations, polluted environments or plastic food containers, why not scare everyone by saying it causes autism, then dare them to disprove it when you haven’t provided proof of your claim in the first place. What a fun game for us all to play. Such a popular game. So I shouldn’t have been surprised to see someone claiming – without any research or explanation to back it up – that autism might be caused by the internet too.
It’s an easy claim for me (or you, or anyone with a few brain cells to rub together), to attack. You could try to point out that the rise in autism numbers has a rather vast number of other far-better-documented-and-explained causes. You could point out that newborns and toddlers with autism haven’t had internet access. You could talk about how autism is present in Amish populations too, and that there are many known genetic causes of autism.
No doubt all such claims can be (will be) met with the reply that “ah, but you see, at least some of autism is being caused by the internet…” (That should sound familiar; you’ll hear the same claims about some autism is being caused by cell-phone towers, plastics exposure, etc blah etc.) You still need proof though. Can they show you a single case where someone who clearly did not have autism, came to have autism after the thing in question, and explain scientifically how that change came about (controlling for correlation versus causation for instance).
Anyway, I thought about writing a lengthy post attacking the claim properly – lots of reading lots of opinions and research – and began with your typical Google search. I waded my way through various off-topic and silly pieces, and then came across something very long, but also very beautiful, about the relationship between autism and the internet. It shared some things I was already aware of, such as how the internet can help autistic people express themselves without the challenges and confusions of facial expressions and body language. But it went well beyond that. It made the eye-opening connection between the way we understand the internet, and the way an autistic mind interacts with and makes sense of the world. It explained how the internet can be viewed like Braille for an autistic person. It shared the wonder and acceptance of many autistic people when they can use the internet to finally connect with others like themselves, gaining a sense of community and enhanced sense of self-worth.
It is a wonderful piece of writing. And I wouldn’t have discovered it if I hadn’t been motivated to do a general search with the aim of exploring the (apparently completely unfounded) claim that the internet can cause autism. And so, though I don’t have time to do a properly researched and better written post about autism and the internet, I can at least direct you towards someone who understands and celebrates – rather than attacks – the beautiful relationship between the internet and autism.
The something rotten: Susan Greenfield: Living online is changing our brains
The something beautiful: “Autism and the Internet” or “It’s the Wiring, Stupid”, by Harvey Blume.