Reasons to Avoid Asking "What Caused Your Child's Autism?"

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"Do you know what caused your child's autism?"

If you're the parent of a child on the spectrum, you've heard this question...  over and over again...  from family, friends, acquaintances, and perfect strangers.  You've also heard it running like a gerbil wheel in your head -- and, quite possibly, you've heard it in your dreams.

Unfortunately, fewer than 20% of autism has a known cause.  In fact, there are very few known causes of autism.  These include genetic disorders such as Fragile X Syndrome, specific drugs taken during pregnancy (valproate is one of only a few such drugs that have been identified), or very clear and obvious inherited trait (there are other people with autism in the immediate family). Vaccines, despite all the hype surrounding them, are not a known cause of autism.

Understanding that the cause of autism is rarely known, however, doesn't stop people from asking the question.  Perhaps even worse, it doesn't stop parents from believing they've found the answer -- even when, as is usually the case, they have no way to actually verify a theory or guess.

Are You Trying to Assign Blame?  Avoid Contamination? Sell a Theory?  Stop Before You Start!

A parent of a child with autism who believes he or she knows the answer to the question (rightly or wrongly) may well be living with a sense of tremendous guilt.  How could I allow X to happen (or not happen)?  Asking the question -- and suggesting a cause -- can make that feeling much stronger.  That's because, all too often, desperate parents zero in on a cause because of a snippet of broadcast news, a Facebook quiz, or a comment dropped by a relative stranger.  For example:

"I heard that if a mother eats tuna during pregnancy, her child could be born autistic."

"How could you allow your child to be vaccinated?  Jenny McCarthy says that vaccines cause autism?"

"You live in X city?  Don't you know there are coal plants there, and coal emissions can cause autism?"

Often, people who are not affected by the problem are actually looking for a reason behind the problem so that they can reassure themselves that they won't run into the same problem.  For example, people will ask about a person recently diagnosed with lung cancer, "Did he smoke?"  Or they'll ask about a person who had a stroke, "Was he overweight?"  If the answer is "yes," and they neither smoke nor are overweight, they feel reassured: they are unlikely to encounter the same problem themselves.

With autism, however, it doesn't work that way.  Since we don't know what caused the problem, we can neither avoid it nor assign blame. 

Just as often, people who raise the question aren't really looking for an answer.  Instead, they're looking for an opening to hawk their particular point of view, therapy, product, or belief system. In other words, they ask the question in the same way that an insurance salesman might ask "Have you thought about life insurance recently?"

As a result, asking the question can lead only to negative results; among them:

  1. Reopening an ongoing and painful issue that can never be resolved -- because no one knows the cause of a child's autism;
  2. Raising the specter (once again) that a parent (usually the mother) made some bad decision at some point that caused harm to her child;
  3. Opening the doors to a lecture from someone with no real knowledge or experience about the causes and cures of a disorder for which the causes and cures are, by and large, unknown;
  4. Inaccurately reassuring another parent that his or her child is unlikely to be autistic because he or she lives in a different area, eats different foods, or otherwise lives a slightly different lifestyle from the person with an autistic child;
  5. Unnecessarily worrying another parent that his or her child IS likely to be autistic because they DO share irrelevant lifestyle choices such as location, eating habits, etc.

Bottom line, unless you're invited to speculate on the causes of a child's autism by that child's parents -- don't.

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