Oh man. Is everyone having a good Autism Awareness Month? I for one, am having a ball. (It’s a tactile sensory ball, thankyouverymuch.) Granted autism has had some stiff competition. April is also Jazz Appreciation Month, as well as Mathematics Awareness Month. But autism is winning, because I’ve seen no headlines for the latter two.
¿And am I hallucinating or does each day bring a new story or study on autism? While I’m all for awareness, some people are not helping matters. I’m thinking specifically of the reported link between autism and maternal obesity. Everyone from the Wall Street Journal to CBS and Fox to USA Today covered the April 9th publication of [deep breath] “Maternal Metabolic Conditions and Risk for Autism and Other Neurodevelopmental Disorders,” published in Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
(That was a long sentence, so you may want to read it again. Or if you’re pressed for time, maybe re-read it some night when you’re having trouble falling asleep.)
The study was widely reported but narrowly discussed. It asserts that maternal obesity is a major risk factor for autism in children. To which one might reasonably respond: Are you fucking kidding me?
Even more astounding, the study mentions that among children without autism, those exposed to any maternal metabolic condition scored lower on early learning (MSEL) and adaptive behavior scales (VABS). Translation: Neuro-developmental delays were found in all children born to mothers who had either type 2 diabetes, obesity or hypertension. Talk about burying the lead.
But don’t put down that pint of Ben & Jerry’s just yet.
There were some curious statistics underpinning the report. To name but a few:
1. 34% of women of childbearing age (U.S.) are obese. Fine.
2. Among the neurotypical kids in the study’s control group, only 14.3% of their mothers were clinically obese. How representative were these kids if their moms had a rate of obesity less than half the national average?
3. Of the kids with autism, 21.5% of them (111 out of 517) had mothers who were obese. This number is way below the national average (34%) and it’s even a few points below the state average (25%) in California, where the study was conducted. Assuming fat chicks procreate at the same rate as skinny bitches, why are their numbers underrepresented here?
4. The study found that obese women are 1.67 times more likely to have a child with autism. Clearly there are enough neurotypical kids born to chubsters – and sufficient autistic kids born to twigs – to render this 1.67 risk multiplier as irresponsibly alarmist.
Something doesn’t add up here, and I’m not referring to the calorie count on that Entenmann’s fat free coffee cake. I’m no statistician, so I invite more astute minds to correct my math and analysis.
In the meantime, would it kill our media to put this study in some perspective? Raising a child with autism comes with enough inherent challenges without the needless addition of self-recrimination.
I’m not interested in sparing people’s feelings at the expense of scientific progress and understanding. But everyone already knows that being overweight comes with negative health consequences. The outlets reporting this study needed fewer sensational headlines and more context.
Of course, the much more sensational statistic to hit Autism Awareness Month was the 1 in 88 figure. People pounced on that from all directions. Reactions ranged from It’s an epidemic! to diagnoses have risen because of awareness and It’s parents wanting to get subsidies!
The ratio misses the point. Whether it’s 1 in 88 or 1 in 110, autism was already a crisis. It doesn’t particularly matter whether it’s under your roof or across town. As a civilized society we are obligated to direct whichever resources are necessary to study, treat and mitigate autism. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a date with a pint of Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough.