8 Things That Don't Cause Autism

Autism isn't contagious

Child (4-5 yeras) wearing space costume hugging mother's leg in shop
Inti St. Clair / Getty Images

It seems that every day something new is implicated as a possible cause of autism. Because there is so little solid information about exactly what does cause autism, it's easy to get caught up in every media blip. Could it be pesticides? Dog shampoo? Airplane contrails? All of these and much more have been suggested as possible causes for a rise in diagnoses.

The reality is that we are not even certain that there has been a significant increase in the number of people with autism. All we know is that, when the diagnostic criteria expanded, so did the number of people who qualified for diagnosis. And as awareness expanded, so did the number of diagnoses. Does that mean that more people are actually autistic now than 20 or 30 years ago? The answer is a qualified "maybe."

There are very few things that, without a doubt, ​increase the risk of autism. These include heredity, certain medications taken prenatally, and a few types of spontaneous genetic mutations that occur for unknown reasons.

But that doesn't stop people from coming up with (or even believing in) inaccurate theories about the causes of autism.

Incorrect Theories About the Causes of Autism

While we don't know exactly why most autistic people are autistic, we do know that at least some of the theories are flat out wrong. Here is the truth about some of the theories that we know to be incorrect.

  1. You can't catch autism: Some people are nervous about allowing their children to come into contact with autistic peers out of anxiety over contagion. But autism is not an infectious disease; it can't be passed from person to person through a virus, a bacteria, or any other means (except heredity). Even if your child is constantly in contact with a child on the autism spectrum, he or she cannot "catch" autism. You may notice a typically developing child copying the mannerisms of an autistic peer, but no one can become autistic as a result of physical proximity.
  2. You can't cause autism by allowing your baby to "cry It out": Parents sometimes worry whether their decision to allow a baby to cry rather than hurrying to comfort him could have caused autism. The answer is no: a child's frustration cannot cause autism. And while child abuse can certainly cause emotional problems unrelated to autism, allowing a baby to "cry it out" is not child abuse. Depending upon the particular situation, it is possible that excessive tantrums could be the result of as-yet-undiagnosed autism. Infants with autism may be unusually sensitive to light, smell, sounds, or physical sensations—so a wet diaper may be more upsetting to an autistic baby than to a typically developing baby. But there is no way that the autism can be caused by tantrums or emotions.
  3. Poor nutrition doesn't cause autism: Many parents have put their children with autism on gluten and casein-free diets (and other special diets). That does not mean that they "caused" their children's autism by feeding them wheat or dairy (or French fries or soda). Research suggests that some children with autism have gastrointestinal issues that can cause discomfort, and removing the cause of that discomfort is very likely to improve behavior, attentiveness, and mood. Thus, while a change in diet may (in a small percentage of cases) improve autistic symptoms, poor nutrition doesn't cause autism.
  4. "Bad" parenting doesn't cause autism: A few decades ago, Bruno Bettelheim infamously influenced the medical profession with his theory that autism is caused by cold, "refrigerator" mothers. Bruno Bettelheim was wrong, but a generation of autism parents nevertheless wound up being blamed for their children's' disabilities. Fortunately, we have gotten past this kind of hurtful blaming.
  5. Cable television doesn't cause autism: A while back, a study came out that suggested the idea that, since cable TV and autism increased in popularity at the same time, there might be a connection. There is no evidence whatever to support the idea that allowing your child to watch a lot of television could possibly cause autism. On the other hand, once your child is diagnosed, it's a good idea to limit screen time in favor of more interactive pursuits. In fact, limiting screen time is a good idea across the board!
  6. Cell phones don't cause autism: Over the years, the media has reported on theories that electromagnetic radiation (ER) created by cell phones and wi-fi networks are behind a rise in autism. This theory most likely developed because mobile technology and autism spectrum diagnoses increased at about the same rate over a similar period of time. There is research to support the idea that ER does have an impact on the brain—but so far no credible connection has been made between ER and autism. Certainly, parents are not causing autism in their children by using their cell phones.
  7. Difficult family situations don't cause autism: One parent was told her son was autistic because "he had too many siblings." Others worry that a divorce or death in the family could have caused a child's autism. This is absolutely untrue. Children cope with divorce, death, and much more, and while there may be psychological implications, such experiences cannot cause autism. If a child does become withdrawn or unhappy, however, it is certainly possible that he or she is suffering from a non-autism-related mood disorder which should be diagnosed and treated.
  8. Spanking doesn't cause autism: Blows to the head, lack of oxygen, and other physical trauma can certainly cause brain damage. Brain damaged children may have behaviors similar to those of autistic children or even be diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. But a swift whack to the rear end, while it may be a controversial approach to child rearing, cannot cause autism in a toddler.

A Word From Verywell

Recent findings suggest that by far the most significant contributing factor to autism is genetics. In some cases, that means autism is inherited; in other cases, spontaneous mutations played a role. Whether you live in a mansion or a hovel, eat organic veggies or packaged mac and cheese, coddle your baby or let her cry, it is extremely unlikely that (or anyone else) caused your child's autism. Just as importantly, it is extremely unlikely that any diet, pill, or therapy will completely eradicate your child's autism. The bottom line is that your child is who he is, autism and all, and the most important thing you can do for him is to love, support, and help him to achieve all that he can in life!

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

By Lisa Jo Rudy
Lisa Jo Rudy, MDiv, is a writer, advocate, author, and consultant specializing in the field of autism.