The XX Factor

More Caution on Autism Op-Eds, Please

When I saw the headline on Nicholas Kristof’s latest op-ed piece -“Do Toxins Cause Autism?”-I’ll admit to flinching. Kristof has a reputation as the voice of common sense in the New York Times . He usually deserves it, and so if he was supporting the thoroughly discredited anti-vaccination movement , this could be tragic. Luckily, he isn’t, and in fact notes that the anti-vaccination theories have been discredited. But unfortunately, I still fear that anti-vaxxers will pick this up as “evidence” for their dangerous nonsense anyway. The word “toxin” is close to the word “autism,” and for many, that’s all they need to know.

I wish Kristof had thought about this more carefully. The idea that in utero exposure to certain chemicals might exacerbate a genetic tendency toward autism is far from a controversial theory in the world of non-kooky science. Just recently, I heard Paul Offit, the leading voice of reason on vaccine safety in country, explain on a podcast that the in utero environment is being seriously considered as one factor in autism. Kristof attacks the issue like there’s a major controversy afoot, and from what I can tell, there’s not.

Part of the problem with reaching public understanding on these issues is that they’re very complicated. Autism research is chugging along, but the discoveries indicate that there’s probably no singular cause of the disease, and that it’s likely a mish-mash of genetics and in utero enviroment (of course, most things about us are like this). I’m sure in time science will learn more about the mystery of what causes autism. In the meantime, I do wish op-ed writers would be more careful to avoid wading into a situation rife with misinformation while using inexact, alarmist words like “toxins.”

Photograph of polluted river by Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images News.