But this time round, I went with something different. And I never thought the phrase “hilariously depressing” would apply to anything on Autistic Not Weird… but I asked my followers for the most ridiculous “causes” of their (or their child’s) autism they had heard.
So… what (apparently) causes our autism?
Most of the alleged causes involved a ‘failure’ on someone’s part, which hardly helps autistic people in our quest to be seen as perfectly valid human beings. Other suggestions were just plain silly. Others even claimed to be scientific, but were just silly suggestions wrapped up in slightly bigger words.
All of them had been said to the contributors of this article, and here are the best of them for your reading ‘pleasure’.
Like I said, brace yourselves.
Cause #1- an autistic diet.
“I read that a cause is baby formula.”
“Not enough fermented food in the diet. And adding such will “cure” autism too! Sigh.”
“One of them had suggested it was drinking too much coffee. Another said red and green cordial causes autism.”
“Antibiotics during pregnancy depleting the baby immune system leading to gut issues which cause neurological change? Anyone else hear that one?”
Drugs were a common answer, from antidepressants to Disprin. Tylenol was mentioned by three separate people, and even folic acid was mentioned twice.
Tobacco was also mentioned twice, but in both cases it was because the baby’s grandmother smoked. (It was refreshing to see someone other than the mother get the blame, but the accusers still couldn’t bring themselves to blame a man.)
Oh, and if you’re tempted to go vegetarian, prepare to feel confused.
“Not eating meat while pregnant.”
“Not being vegetarian did it…”
“Red meat. I’ve been a vegetarian my whole life, Mom went vegetarian about 10 years before her first pregnancy. I’m still autistic.”
“I’m vegetarian and some people have told me that could have compromised my personality, making me more susceptible to ‘autistic traits’.”
“I’ve seen PETA claim that eating dairy leads to autism.”
They literally did, by the way.
Cause #2- a thing, and also its direct opposite.
“Breastfeeding, and not breastfeeding.”
“I don’t discipline them enough, and I discipline them too much.”
“One thread I followed started out saying that formula feeding caused Autism (breastmilk gives babies what they need, so lack of it must cause Autism- right?)… and then after answers someone decided, no, it’s extended breastfeeding (because…. Autistics don’t like to wean?)”
And the following two:
“Maternal indifference and lack of bonding.”
“Being spoiled as a child and having an overprotective mother.”
If people want to claim our parents are awful, they should at least make their mind up on which kind of awful they are.
Cause #3- God Himself.
The big guy sure gets a bad press from his fan club at times.
“We’ve been told “God was just looking the other way when you made him.””
“I was told that my son has autism because God is punishing me for forcing vaccines on him.”
“Lack of faith and prayer. I just don’t even have words for how astonished I was to hear this said to me. I’m thankful the God I believe in isn’t vindictive, firstly, and that I don’t believe autism to be a curse but rather a beautiful diversity.”
“Because “God” knew I could handle a special needs child.”
“Yep. I get that one too! (Like God has this quota of autistic kids “up there” and spends all His time looking around until he finds homes for them – like kittens. Except I’m also a teacher and I’ve seen plenty of rotten parents with ASD kids as well as all those “special” parents.).”
My personal view? Well, this funny picture comes close.
Cause #4- Refrigerator mothers. Even now.
Ah, Bruno Bettelheim. One day, we’ll repair the damage you did to our community.
For those who don’t know the story, a school director called Bettelheim extensively claimed that autism was caused by cold, uncaring mothers. Due to the lack of knowledge surrounding autism at the time, and Bettelheim’s expertise at being fraudulent with his credentials, the ‘refrigerator mother’ theory became standard belief among professionals.
(Note- the theory was originally let loose by Leo Kanner, but it was Bettelheim who picked up the ball and ran with it. By 1969 Kanner had changed his views altogether, denouncing his old ways at a parents’ convention with the extremely kind words “I officially acquit you people as parents.”)
History has not judged Bettelheim too well. Since his death revelations have surfaced of him faking almost all his credentials to gain influence in the field of psychology, plagiarism in some of his high-profile works, and committing emotional and physical abuse against his young students (to such an extent that three of them have published books about their traumatic experiences there).
But all the same, nearly thirty years after his death, some followers replied to my post having been labelled as ‘refrigerator mothers’.
“Some psychologists are still spouting this nonsense. I got told just a couple of years ago by a psychologist that it’s due to lack of attachment.”
“Mom got this fridgemom stuff in her face in the late 1990’s. Still can’t get over it.”
(But, of course, the complete opposite causes autism too.)
“Apparently it was because I practised attachment parenting when he was small and worry too much about him now. So the opposite of cold mothering then!”
Cause #5- oh bloody hell, not vaccines again.
Yes, Andrew Wakefield’s MMR vaccine scare from the late 1990s. You’d think that claim would have gone out with the Backstreet Boys, but it’s still going.
Sadly, falsifying data was not a practice confined to Bettelheim’s era. No matter where you are in time, where there are profits there’s the risk of profiteers. Thankfully they get struck off the medical register these days, but not before causing a worldwide scare (which can’t be so swiftly dealt with).
I’m not going to waste time discussing the vaccine “debate”, because it only exists among those of us who aren’t immunologists. It’s similar to how man-made climate change is considered a “debate” among the general population, even though 97% of scientists believe it is real. Or how 40% of British people don’t believe Jesus existed, compared to 1 in 10,000 professional historians [n.b. this is regarding his existence, not his divinity]. These debates barely exist in their actual fields of study, and are only ‘controversial’ topics in the public domain.
Instead, all I’m going to do is provide this link to a 21-page report on vaccine safety by the American Academy of Pediatrics, and this link to a fantastic infographic that describes how the vaccine-autism link has been comprehensively debunked since Andrew Wakefield was struck off the medical register for falsifying his data.
“Vaccines” was an answer given by twenty different people, one of whom added that none of her five children were vaccinated but apparently vaccines caused their autism anyway. So yes, I’m afraid Wakefield’s scaremongering lives on. (Because it’s such an emotive subject, I almost never discuss it. My personal opinions, for those who are curious, can be found somewhere in this article).
On a lighter note…
Cause #6- Peppa Pig.
Let’s face it, half the people reading this clicked the link because they saw Peppa Pig and thought ‘…what?’
“Peppa pig! No joke, someone told me not to let my baby watch Peppa Pig because the show was causing toddlers to become autistic. (I’m autistic, so that didn’t go over quite the way they planned as a conversation topic.)”
“I once read somewhere that kids watching Peppa the Pig would supposedly give them autism, but it sounds like something posted by a real troll.”
Eight different people referenced this. Some were making reference to the faked ‘Harvard’ study linking Peppa Pig to autism. Others were reporting their friends actually believing it.
Lora has it right: the reporting of a Harvard study was fake news (shortly before ‘fake news’ became a thing) and a satire of how obsessed people are with finding causes for autism.
Unfortunately, by then the internet had been conditioned to so many other ridiculous causes that many believed it was serious news. I think that alone sums up how ridiculous the situation truly is.
Sadly, Peppa Pig isn’t the only autism-inducing fictional character out there.
“Barney the dinosaur. I read an article last year on it.”
Cause #7- evolution.
“I’ve been told I’m the next stage of human evolution… More focus and less attachment to people being better for a species that is isolating itself in computers…. Wasn’t sure how to respond, but suddenly felt like an X man!!”
Opinions were kind of split on whether autism evolving is another stupid claim or a fairly accurate one. After all, if we believe that autism is genetic then at some point evolution has to come into it. (However, my understanding of evolution tells me that adaptations happen very slowly over thousands of years, rather than a knee-jerk reaction to the world suddenly being more technological.)
With that said, several responders had been told that autism is the result of two intelligent parents having a child, and others referenced the ‘Silicon Valley’ effect: where a hotbed of geeks and nerds kickstarted a disproportionately high number of autistic children. And the sheer amount of people who can see autism elsewhere in their family does imply it’s genetic.
Cause #8- everything the parents ever did.
In my experience, the average parent has two default settings: guilt and worry. This leads to parents blaming themselves a lot. For example:
“Not sure from other people, but I wracked my brain for all the ways I might have done to cause Autism and ADHD in my son. Did I eat the wrong things during pregnancy, was it my gestational diabetes, is it because I drank too much on New Year’s Eve when I didn’t know I was pregnant, was it because of my post-natal depression, was it because I was so tired afterwards that I impacted his synapses firing correctly, did I have a baby with the wrong person (yes but that’s a different story!). Mummy guilt is strong in this one!”
But with that said, society doesn’t shy away from giving parents extra reasons to blame themselves (as if autism is a subject that needs blame assigning to it at all).
“Vaccines, GMOs, I gained too much weight in my pregnancy, c-section, because I didn’t breastfeed, that one time he bumped his head as a baby… any which way you put it it’s my fault that my son has autism.”
“Mothers who have yelled during pregnancy (I almost peed laughing when I read that!!)”
“Well… if we read to him more, he wouldn’t be nonverbal.”
“Bedrest while pregnant deprived the baby of stimulation from mother’s movements.”
“I was told I had my two sons too close together, and my second son didn’t get enough nutrients and vitamins from me in the womb.”
“I am ASD as are my 5 children, my brother, several cousins and the traits were obvious in previous generations as far back as we can go… but it’s all because of bad, detached, cold parenting or so I have been told.”
“Lack of discipline.”
“Lack of discipline.”
“Not enough discipline.”
“Bad parenting. Not enough discipline.”
(And naturally, the complete opposite:)
And two comments that absolutely must be included:
“I laugh and ignore all ‘cause’ articles because they are yet to explain twins with one autistic and one NT. If it were anything the mother did, how does it only affect one?”
“If my son’s autistic behavior is because of my parenting, then his success is because of me too.”
Also, some causes to make you go “wow… thanks.”
“Your womb is defective.”
“A frigid mother.”
“I was told by someone that the reason I’m autistic is because I’m fat. I’ve seen a lot of dubious claims around but this one took the cake.”
“Told by my ex-husband upon leaving the professionals that it was because I didn’t cope with our separation.”
“Elderly parents. My dad was 26 and my mum was 20 when I was born.”
“The mother’s toxic digestive system”
“Having depression, because depressed people need more reasons to blame themselves.”
“One person actually told me that it was because my black husband’s blood didn’t mix with my white blood, resulting in my autistic child (offensive on so many levels).”
“I was told I suffered “Munchausen’s by proxy” thus making my daughter a spoiled brat – so much so, that I turned her autistic.”
-Renée (Leaving aside that this isn’t how Munchausen’s works, I can only imagine how hurtful that one was to hear.)
And to finish, a bunch of inexplicable one-offs.
“Church lady told me not to give my son Skittles because that causes autism. Same person also told my son was just possessed by demons and needs holy water poured on him.”
“I heard someone say that tattoos cause it.”
“My daughter ‘caught’ it from paddling in the sea.”
“Mobile phone tower radiation.”
“Non-stick cookware. Seriously.”
“I was told that I caused it in at least one of my kids because I talked about it in front of them.”
“GMOs and Chemtrails. Oh! WiFi devices as well!”
“We were told our son has moved schools too many times. Who knew moving schools could cause autism?”
“I didn’t get enough sunlight while pregnant so my daughter has autism.”
“My older child had a lot of plastic toys. So, you know, that’s why.”
“Living below overhead power cables when pregnant.”
“I read a comment once that plug in air fresheners release autism causing toxins into the air.”
“Microwaved food, cell phones, taking depression meds while pregnant or up to a year before becoming pregnant, not enough folic acid while pregnant (could have sworn that caused spinal bifida, but whatever), circumcision (hmmm and yet girls are autistic).”
Honestly, that last one makes me sad that I was born autistic and didn’t even get a hot tub out of it.
I can think of a few lessons to take from this pile of chaotic misunderstandings.
First off, we have a long way to go regarding public understanding of autism. That much is obvious.
But it goes beyond that. Each one of these autism ‘causes’ furthers the stereotype that autism is supposed to be inherently A Bad Thing. An automatic negative rather than a difference. A problem where causes need to be sought in order for solutions to be found.
A number of autism advocates claim that it’s not ‘autism awareness’ that’s needed; it’s ‘autism acceptance’. And they have a very good point. People who are ‘aware’ of autism can still believe it’s caused by Peppa Pig. What’s needed is for society to see autistic people as people in their own right, rather than failed versions of non-autistic people. Who may struggle with difficulties (and also with having their strengths overlooked/assumed not to exist), but are much better served by assistance with those difficulties than by an internet-ful of people looking for someone to blame for their existence.
There is one more conclusion I can draw from this exercise though. I deliberately saved these answers until last:
“Sugar was one I heard. Yep, sugar?”
“Dairy and wheat.”
The most striking conclusion from this article?
You can make a cake out of the alleged causes of autism.
Underdogs, a near-future dystopia series where the heroes are teenagers with special needs, is a character-driven war story which pitches twelve people against an army of millions, balancing intense action with a deeply developed neurodiverse cast.
Chris Bonnello is a national and international autism speaker, available to lead talks and training sessions from the perspective of an autistic former teacher. For further information please click here (opens in new window). Autistic Not Weird on Facebook