Media Coverage May Perpetuate Autism Myths

"I think one of the dangers of the vaccine myth, besides the public health consequences of not getting vaccinated, is that it gives the notion that there is something specific out there that if we could just find it and remove it, autism would go away," said Carr.

"Unfortunately the research is showing that autism is a very complicated disorder that has many different causes, and I just don't think there are easy fixes out there."

Some researchers also worry that the media's attention to the vaccine debate misinforms the public and may lead some to consider the debate to be one of nature versus nurture with no overlap between the two.

"That I think is the danger -- that it could be simplified to a genetics versus environmental toxin debate," said Dr. Ernest Krug, director of the Center for Human Development at the William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Mich.

"People generally think it's either a biological problem or an environmental problem. I think that most people in the medical field feel it's a combination of genetic susceptibility and environmental triggers -- and we're still a long way from understanding what we'd like to know in either of those areas."

He said effects of the nature-versus-nurture battle are most felt in economic terms, as those in different camps tend to argue over how available funds should be spent.

"There's no question that we should be spending money on research, and hopefully people won't spend a lot of time arguing about which research to support more," he said. "Clearly there are things to be learned in all fronts."

In addition, clinicians expressed concern that parents who are focused on environmental poisons, because of overexposure of that possibility through the media, may be less likely to seek behavioral treatments, like applied behavior analysis, which have shown promise in scientific studies.

"People who believe it's an environmental toxin don't actively look for behavioral therapies," Krug said. "Applied behavior analysis is the one evidence-based intervention that we have in autistic work, so it's unfortunate that families might draw that conclusion."

The Balance Problem

In the end, some scientists suggest the issue may be a fundamental flaw in the way the news is reported.

"The average media article is not an attempt to show the truth, but an attempt to show both sides," Poland said. "That philosophical way of doing business, I think, leads to more harm than good and more confusion than understanding.

"I think part of it is sensationalism. I think that's what sells. But it's too bad because I think it misinforms people, and children in part end up getting hurt because of it."

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