Olde tyme tea party. Girls engaging in pretend play, 19th c. Photo via Wikimedia; public domain in US.
Did you engage in imaginary play as a child? A recent study–which like the organic foods study involved evaluation of existing reports in one big chunk–has led its authors to conclude that imaginary or pretend play doesn’t seem to boost intelligence, creativity, or the ability to tackle problems. The researchers did find that such play might be beneficial for language and social development, storytelling, and self-regulation. Their findings are set to appear in the Psychological Bulletin (abstract here).
According to the study authors, says Farris Samarri writing at the NESCA blog, previous studies suggesting links between pretend play and intelligence and other features might have had flaws in design and methods and been “overheated” in their conclusions. The article quotes study lead author Angeline Lillard, a professor at the University of Virginia, as saying:
When you look at the research that has been done to test that, it comes up really short… It may be that we’ve been testing the wrong things; and it may well be that when a future experiment is really well done we may find something that pretend play does for development, but at this point these claims are all overheated. This is our conclusion from having really carefully read the studies.
To me, this finding isn’t that surprising. Intelligence, creativity, and addressing problems can be the activities of a brain on its own, reinforced through solo pursuits within the real world like reading, self-directed learning or hands-on activities, or even watching certain television shows. But while children can, of course, engage in imaginary play on their own, “play” as we generally think of it tends to involve interaction and even practice with other people.
Play of any kind requires energy, and across the animal kingdom, energy is a precious commodity. That we and so many other species spend time in play suggests its importance. Of course, play comes in different flavors. Rolling around on the ground in a giant dogpile with your brothers might be more basic “lion cub” play than what we’d consider imaginary play or pretend play. From my adult perspective, very little imagination is involved in that sort of play; just a lot of noise and chaos, but they seem to like it. Pretend play, on the other hand, according to the NESCA piece, is
any play a child engages in, alone, with playmates, or with adults, that involves uses of the imagination to create a fantasy world or situation, such as making toy cars go “vrrooooom” or making dolls talk.
Whether we’re talking about lion cubs or children, about pretend play or just rolling around in a pile, these interactions guide a number of social behaviors, communication, and bonding and help young animals orient to the world around them (PBS video about play here). In addition to social interactions, storytelling is another feature that I can easily see would sharpen with imaginary play, particularly with an increasing understanding of what an audience is and how they respond. And even though the term might imply otherwise, self-regulation is something we generally don’t acquire by ourselves. We learn a lot about how to control what we present through feedback from others, including parents and peers. What’s unclear to me is what intrinsic factor pretend play might have that goes beyond non-pretend social interactions to reinforce self-regulation.
The NESCA post notes that an absence of pretend play is still a red flag for developmental conditions on the autism spectrum, particularly if noted between the ages of 18 months and 2 years. With an anecdatum alert, my oldest son is on the autism spectrum and engaged in pretend play. He just did it ways that in retrospect stand out as unusual for his age–and he still does. A lack of pretend play in a toddler is not pathognomonic–a definite indicator–of autism (nothing is), but if you have concerns about it, ask your pediatrician about an evaluation.
Do the findings of this large analysis surprise you? Had you thought that pretend play might boost creativity or intelligence or problem-solving skills? If you have a child, does she or he engage in pretend play?
My daughter, patiently waiting to get her own balloon jetpack. Photo credit: Phil Blake
Why can’t you understand that my daughter wants a damn jetpack?
Last weekend, I took my daughters to a birthday party that featured a magician/balloon artist. He was really fantastic with the kids, and kept their attention for close to 1 hour (ONE HOUR!!!). At the end of his magic show, he began to furiously twist and tie balloons into these amazing shapes, promoting energetic and imaginative play. Of these shapes was his own, very intricate invention: a jetpack.
When he completed the first jetpack, I watched as the eyes of my five-year-old daughter, who happens to be a very sporty kid, light up with wonder. She looked at me and smiled, indicating through her facial expression alone that she wanted the same balloon toy. But, alas, when it was her turn for a balloon, her requests were met with opposition. Here was the conversation:
Magician: How about a great butterfly balloon?
Daughter: No thanks, I’d like a jetpack please.
Magician: I think you should get a butterfly.
Daughter: I’d prefer a jetpack.
Magician: But you’re a girl. Girls get butterflies.
Daughter (giving me a desperate look): But I really want a jetpack!
Realizing that my daughter was becoming unnecessarily upset, especially given the fact that there were 3 boys already engaging in play with their totally awesome jetpacks, myself and the hostess mother intervened. We kindly reiterated my daughter’s requests for a jetpack. And, so she was given a jetpack.
Later that evening, my daughter asked me why the magician insisted that she get a butterfly balloon when she explicitly asked for a jetpack. Not wanting to reveal the realities of gender stereotype at that very point in time, I simply stated that sometimes we (a gender neutral “we”) might have to repeat ourselves so that others understand what we want. Then she asked, “but why are butterflies only for girls?”
I was able to more or less able smooth it over with her, but it was clear to me that a very archaic reality was still in play, and my daughters were about to inherit it. While I have nothing against typically female role-playing or dolls or princesses, I do not like when they are assumed to be the preferred activities. I also do not like the idea that some toys, based on years of “market research,” are designed to basically pigeonhole girls into a June Cleaveresque state of being, especially without alternative play options.
The five LEGO Friends
For instance, LEGO has recently launched a “for-girls-only” campaign, exemplified by the new “Friends” LEGO kit. Slathered in pink and purple, this kit is designed around a narrative involving five friends and a pretend city named Heartlake. Like nearly all cities, Heartlake boasts a bakery, a beauty salon, a cafe, and a veterinarian’s office to take care of sick animals. However, unlike every city, Heartlake lacks things like a hospital, a fire department, a police station, and a local airport (thought they do have a flying club). In essence, this toy is facilitating pretend play that centers ONLY on domestication, which absolutely limits both experiences and expectations for girls playing with this toy. In essence, LEGO is assuming that all girls want the butterfly balloon instead of the jetpack.
Some might think, “jeeze, it’s just a toy!” and dismiss my objection to all that the Friends kit encompasses. And perhaps when the Friends kit is offered in addition to a variety of toy types – gender neutral, masculine, and feminine – it may not have a significant effect on the mindset of its young, impressionable owner. But what if that’s not the case?
Traditional LEGO bricks: For boys AND girls, goshdarnit!
LEGO has also gotten it wrong when it comes to the assumption that girls are not into the traditional LEGO blocks. In fact, just last night, my daughter (the very one who wanted a jetpack) saw a commercial for a LEGO City product – I forgot which one – and asked that we put it on her ever expanding Christmas list. Furthermore, both of my daughters are huge fans of the LEGO produced show on the Cartoon Network, Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitzu, which is based on the traditional LEGO figures and game. My oldest daughter is arguably very sporty and may be more inclined to like “boy” things, but my younger daughter is chock-full of sugar and spice and yada yada yada. She prefers to wear dresses, LOVES shoes, and demands to have her nails painted at all times. And she still gets down with regular LEGOs and monster trucks and basketball and karate (all her own choices). So why is LEGO shoving pastel bricks down girls’ throats?
Gender and play
Play is an important part of cognitive development. When children engage in play, they learn through discovery, become familiar with their own limitations, gain a better understanding of spatial relationships, become introduced to cause and effect, and, most relevant to this discussion, play exposes children to societal and cultural norms, as well as family values. Placing limits on play can affect how a child sees him or herself in the world, which can impact both career and lifestyle choices.
Research (and experience) has shown that the toys kids choose are shaped by societal expectations; however, these expectations are often dictated by marketing teams and their assumptions of what they think their customers want to see, perpetuating a toy culture that has changed little since the 1950s. Furthermore, parents may impose toys that are gender “appropriate,” or even punish play that does not align with traditional gender expectations. But what toys do kids actually want to play with?
In 2003, researchers at the University of Nebraska conducted a study to, in part, identify the impact that stereotyped toys have on play in young children. There were 30 children who participated in this study, ranging in age from 18-47 months. They were observed for 30 minutes in a room full of toys, with each toy defined as being traditionally masculine, feminine, or gender neutral. Interestingly, when assessing the toy preferences of the children, boys tended to play with toys that were either masculine or gender neutral, whereas girls played with toys that were largely gender neutral. These findings were consistent with previous studies showing that girls tend to play with toys that are not traditionally gendered (i.e. blocks, crayons, puzzles, bears, etc).
Cherney, et al, 2003
Why is there a disconnect between the natural tendencies of toy choice among female children and what marketing executives deem as appropriate toys for girls? While fantasy play based on domestic scenarios does have its place during normal development, restricting children to certain types of gendered toys can promote a stereotypical mindset that extends into adulthood, possibly adding to the gender inequity seen in the workplace. Furthermore, assigning and marketing toys to a specific gender may also contribute to the gendering of household duties and/or recreational activities (i.e. only boys can play hockey or only girls do laundry).
This is obviously problematic for females, especially given the disproportionately low number of women executives and STEM professionals (just to name a few). However, a conclusion from this study that I hadn’t even considered is the idea that overly feminized toys are not good for boys.
How “girls only” is disadvantageous to boys
When looking at “masculine” versus “feminine” play, one would see that there is some non-overlap when it comes to learned skills. For instance, “masculine” play often translates into being able to build something imaginative (like a spaceship or other cool technology) whereas “feminine” toys tend to encourage fantasy play surrounding taking care of the home (like putting the baby to sleep or ironing clothes).
Both types of learning experiences are useful in today’s world, especially given that more women enter the work force and there is growing trend to more or less split household duties. So when a kid is being offered toys that encourage play that has both masculine and feminine qualities, there is enhanced development of a variety of skills that ultimately translate into real, modern world scenarios.
However, the issue lies in the willingness to provide and play with strongly cross-gender-stereotyped toys. Because of the number of toys having this quality, there is a huge gender divide when it comes to play, and boys are much less likely to cross gender lines, especially when toys are overtly “girly” (see figure above). This is most often because of parents and caregivers who discourage play with “girl” toys, usually citing things like “they will make fun of you.” Toys heavily marketed to match the stereotypical likes of girls, such as the Friends LEGO kit, clearly excludes boys from engaging in play that develops domestic skills (in addition to pigeonholing girls into thinking that girls can only do domestic things).
Just yesterday, I came across an article on CNN discussing this issue, and it contained anecdotes similar to the one I described above. The author described how a little girl was scoffed for having a Star-Wars thermos as well as how a little boy was told (by another little girl) that he could not have the mermaid doll he wanted. My arguments thus far have been centered on developing a variety of skills through play, but I’d also like to add that limiting self-expression could be disastrous for the future wellbeing of an individual.
There is some progress being made with regard to how toys are being presented in stores. For instance, the same article described the new Toy Kingdom at Harrod’s, which does not conform to the traditionally separated “boy” and “girl” sections. Instead, it has “worlds,” such as The Big Top(with circus acts and fairies) or Odyssey(with space crafts and gadgets). This type of organization allows any child, regardless of gender, to engage in play that facilitates imagination and cognition.
Hey Toys’R Us, are you listening?
Please don’t misinterpret this as being anti-pink, anti-princess, or anti-feminine. I embrace my own femininity with vigor and pride. I like to wear dresses and makeup and get my hair did. Give me a pair of Manolo Blahniks and I will wear the shit out of them. But I will do so while elbow deep in a biochemical analysis of intracellular cholesterol transport.
My point is that if you are going to make a toy more appealing to girls by painting it pink, don’t forget to include facets that allow girls to be comfortable with their femininity while providing an experience that promotes empowerment and an unlimited imagination. Furthermore, don’t exclude boys from getting an experience that helps them acquire skills that are applicable (and desirable) in the modern world. As it stands right now, toys like the Friends LEGO kit does neither of these and I believe that they major fails, both of the Double X and the XY variety.
Judith E. Owen Blakemore and Renee E. Centers, Characteristics of Boys’ and Girls’ Toys, Sex Roles, Vol. 53, Nos. 9/10, November 2005 [PDF, paywall]
Gerianne M. Alexander, Ph.D., An Evolutionary Perspective of Sex-Typed Toy Preferences: Pink, Blue, and the Brain, Archives of Sexual Behavior, Vol. 32, No. 1, , pp. 7–14, February 2003 [PDF, paywall]
Isabelle D. Cherney, Lisa Kelly-Vance, Katrina Gill Glover, Amy Ruane, and Brigette Oliver Ryalls, The Effects of Stereotyped Toys and Gender on Play Assessment in Children Aged 18-47 Months, Educational Psychology: An International Journal of Experimental Educational Psychology, 23:1, 95-106, 2003
Carol J. Auster and Claire S. Mansbach, The Gender Marketing of Toys: An Analysis of Color and Type of Toy on the Disney Store Website, Sex Roles, 2012 [abstract link]
Isabelle D. Cherney and Kamala London, Gender-linked Differences in the Toys, Television Shows, Computer Games, and Outdoor Activities of 5- to 13-year-old Children, Sex Roles, 2006 [PDF]
Isabelle D. Cherney and Bridget Oliver Ryalls, Gender-linked differences in the incidental memory of children and adults, J Exp Child Psychol, 1999 Apr;72(4):305-28 [abstract link]
Have you seen the headlines? Skip them You’ve probably seen a lot of headlines lately about autism and various behaviors, ways of being, or “toxins” that, the headlines tell you, are “linked” to it. Maybe you’re considering having a child and are mentally tallying up the various risk factors you have as a parent. Perhaps you have a child with autism and are now looking back, loaded with guilt that you ate high-fructose corn syrup or were overweight or too old or too near a freeway or not something enough that led to your child’s autism. Maybe you’re an autistic adult who’s getting a little tired of reading in these stories about how you don’t exist or how using these “risk factors” might help the world reduce the number of people who are like you. Here’s the bottom line: No one knows precisely what causes the extremely diverse developmental difference we call autism. Research from around the world suggests a strong genetic component[PDF]. What headlines in the United States call an “epidemic” is, in all likelihood, largely attributable to expanded diagnostic inclusion, better identification, and, ironically, greater awareness of autism. In countries that have been able to assess overall population prevalence, such as the UK, rates seem to have held steady at about 1% for decades, which is about the current levels now identified among 8-year-olds in the United States. What anyone needs when it comes to headlines honking about a “link” to a specific condition is a mental checklist of what the article–and whatever research underlies it–is really saying. Previously, we brought you Real vs Fake Science: How to tell them apart. Now we bring you our Double X Double-Take checklist. Use it when you read any story about scientific research and human health, medicine, biology, or genetics. The Double X Double-Take: What to do when reading science in the news 1. Skip the headline. Headlines are often misleading, at best, and can be wildly inaccurate. Forget about the headline. Pretend you never even saw the headline. 2. What is the basis of the article? Science news originates from several places. Often it’s a scientific paper. These papers come in several varieties. The ones that report a real study–lots of people or mice or flies, lots of data, lots of analysis, a hypothesis tested, statistics done–is considered “original research.” Those papers are the only ones that are genuinely original scientific studies. Words to watch for–terms that suggest no original research at all–are “review,” “editorial,” “perspective,” “commentary,” “case study” (these typically involve one or only a handful of cases, so no statistical analysis), and “meta-analysis.” None of these represents original findings from a scientific study. All but the last two are opinion. Also watch for “scientific meeting” and “conference.” That means that this information was presented without peer review at a scientific meeting. It hasn’t been vetted in any way. 3. Look at the words in the article. If what you’re reading contains words like “link,” “association,” “correlation,” or “risk,” then what the article is describing is a mathematical association between one thing (e.g., autism) and another (e.g., eating ice cream). It is likely not describing a biological connection between the two. In fact, popular articles seem to very rarely even cover scientific research that homes in on the biological connections. Why? Because these findings usually come in little bits and pieces that over time–often quite a bit of time–build into a larger picture showing a biological pathway by which Variable 1 leads to Outcome A. That’s not generally a process that’s particularly newsworthy, and the pathways can be both too specific and extremely confusing. 4. Look at the original source of the information. Google is your friend. Is the original source a scientific journal? At the very least, especially for original research, the abstract will be freely available. A news story based on a journal paper should provide a link to that abstract, but many, many news outlets do not do this–a huge disservice to the interested, engaged reader. At any rate, the article probably includes the name of a paper author and the journal of publication, and a quick Google search on both terms along with the subject (e.g., autism) will often find you the paper. If all you find is a news release about the paper–at outlets like ScienceDaily or PhysOrg–you are reading marketing materials. Period. And if there is no mention of publication in a journal, be very, very cautious in your interpretation of what’s being reported. 5. Remember that every single person involved in what you’re reading has a dog in the hunt. The news outlet wants clicks. For that reason, the reporter needs clicks. The researchers probably want attention to their research. The institutions where the researchers do their research want attention, prestige, and money. A Website may be trying to scare you into buying what they’re selling. Some people are not above using “sexy” science topics to achieve all of the above. Caveat lector. 6. Ask a scientist. Twitter abounds with scientists and sciencey types who may be able to evaluate an article for you. I receive daily requests via email, Facebook, and Twitter for exactly that assistance, and I’m glad to provide it. Seriously, ask a scientist. You’ll find it hard to get us to shut up. We do science because we really, really like it. It sure ain’t for the money. [Edited to add: But see also an important caveat and an important suggestion from Maggie Koerth-Baker over at Boing Boing and, as David Bradley has noted over at ScienceBase, always remember #5 on this list when applying #6.] —————————————————————————– Case Study Lately, everyone seems to be using “autism” as a way to draw eyeballs to their work. Below, I’m giving my own case study of exactly that phenomenon as an example of how to apply this checklist. 1. Headline: “Ten chemicals most likely to cause autism and learning disabilities” and “Could autism be caused by one of these 10 chemicals?” Double X Double-Take 1: Skip the headline. Check. Especially advisable as there is not one iota of information about “cause” involved here. 2. What is the basis of the article? Editorial. Conference. In other words, those 10 chemicals aren’t something researchers identified in careful studies as having a link to autism but instead are a list of suspects the editorial writers derived, a list that they’d developed two years ago at the mentioned conference. 3. Look at the words in the articles. Suspected. Suggesting a link. In other words, what you’re reading below those headlines does not involve studies linking anything to autism. Instead, it’s based on an editorial listing 10 compounds [PDF] that the editorial authors suspect might have something to do with autism (NB: Both linked stories completely gloss over the fact that most experts attribute the rise in autism diagnoses to changing and expanded diagnostic criteria, a shift in diagnosis from other categories to autism, and greater recognition and awareness–i.e., not to genetic changes or environmental factors. The editorial does the same). The authors do not provide citations for studies that link each chemical cited to autism itself, and the editorial itself is not focused on autism, per se, but on “neurodevelopmental” derailments in general. 4. Look at the original source of information. The source of the articles is an editorial, as noted. But one of these articles also provides a link to an actual research paper. The paper doesn’t even address any of the “top 10” chemicals listed but instead is about cigarette smoking. News stories about this study describe it as linking smoking during pregnancy and autism. Yet the study abstract states that they did not identify a link, saying “We found a null association between maternal smoking and pregnancy in ASDs and the possibility of an association with a higher-functioning ASD subgroup was suggested.” In other words: No link between smoking and autism. But the headlines and how the articles are written would lead you to believe otherwise. 5. Remember that every single person involved has a dog in this hunt. Read with a critical eye. Ask yourself, what are people saying vs what real support exists for their assertions? Who stands to gain and in what way from having this information publicized? Think about the current culture–does the article or the research drag in “hot” topics (autism, obesity, fats, high-fructose corn syrup, “toxins,” Kim Kardashian) without any real basis for doing so? 6. Ask a scientist. Why, yes, I am a scientist, so I’ll respond. My field of research for 10 years happens to have been endocrine-disrupting compounds. I’ve seen literally one drop of a compound dissolved in a trillion drops of solvent shift development of a turtle from male to female. I’ve seen the negative embryonic effects of pesticides and an over-the-counter antihistamine on penile development in mice. I know well the literature that runs to the thousands of pages indicating that we’ve got a lot of chemicals around us and in us that can have profound influences during sensitive periods of development, depending on timing, dose, species, and what other compounds may be involved. Endocrine disruptors or “toxins” are a complex group with complex interactions and effects and can’t be treated as a monolith any more than autism should be. What I also know is that synthetic endocrine-disruptors have been around for more than a century and that natural ones for far, far longer. Do I think that the “top 10” chemicals require closer investigation and regulation? Yes. But not because I think they’re causative in some autism “epidemic.” We’ve got sufficiently compelling evidence of their harm already without trying to use “autism” as a marketing tool to draw attention to them. Just as a couple of examples: If coal-burning pollution (i.e., mercury) were causative in autism, I’d expect some evidence of high rates in, say, Victorian London, where the average household burned 11 tons of coal a year. If modern lead exposures were causative, I’d be expecting records from notoriously lead-burdened ancient Rome containing descriptions of the autism epidemic that surely took it over. Bottom line: We’ve got plenty of reasons for concern about the developmental effects of the compounds on this list. But we’ve got very limited reasons to make autism a focal point for testing them. Using the Double X Double-Take checklist helps demonstrate that. By Emily Willingham, DXS managing editor
Today’s post is long. It’s long because it involves the winding path that science can take from ignition to exploding into the public view… and how the twists and turns in that path can result in a skewed representation and understanding of the science. Read the whole thing. It focuses on an example that involves autism–which seems to pop up in skewed representations every day–but certainly this path from science to you, the consumer, happens with scientific information in general. The author is Jess, who blogged this originally at “Don’t Mind the Mess” and graciously gave us permission to reproduce it here. Jess, an attorney with a B.S. in biochemistry, parent of an autistic child and brand new baby, and self-described “Twitter fiend,” tweets as @JessicaEsquire.
I am putting my foot down.
As the parent of an autistic child I hear a lot about vaccines and about half a million other things that people think cause autism.
I’m hyperaware of the attention autism gets in the media. So I know about the CDC’s new stats on autism rates. I know about the debate on whether the increase in autism is due to more awareness and diagnosis or more actual occurrences. (Personally, I find the former to be a serious factor, though who’s to say how much.) And I see all the articles that come out week after week about the millions of things that are linked to autism.
There’s a recurring problem here. Valuable research is done. Research is disseminated. Information is reported. Articles are read. Findings are spread. What starts in a lab ends up in a Facebook status. What starts as truth ends up as mistruth in something like a child’s game of telephone. Along the way, piece by piece, truth fades away in favor of headlines and pageviews and gossip.
It’s getting just plain stupid. I’m starting to suspect these articles have nothing to do with serious research but with a search for traffic and hype, an attempt to ride the wave of a trendy topic as concerned parents read every horror story they can find.
A particularly egregious one came up recently. This one doesn’t just cite some random correlation. This one is just plain making things up. The problems here just pile one on top of the other. So let’s consider it piece by piece, a case study in how real research becomes misinformation.
Part One: Research
It starts with scientists. It starts with research. They write up their findings and publish them in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. In this case there are several papers published over a few years about chemicals and their link to brain development. They cover a wide variety of issues and present a wide variety of conclusions. All of them suggest further study.
Maybe they have bad methodology or use statistics incorrectly. Only a few people would ever know the difference. That’s not my concern today. Bad science is one thing, but bad information on good science is another. So let’s assume we have good, solid science in this research.
Part Two: The Conference
Scientists and researchers with similar interests get together and discuss their findings. It’s not that difference from any other conference. There are panels and presentations.
Part Three: The Op-Ed
Next, a group that works on environmental hazards for children publishes a paper. Not a research study but an op-ed in a peer-reviewed journal. In this op-ed they review the conference from Part Two and encourage the study of environmental factors and their relationship to neurodevelopment disorders. Autism is one of many neuro-ish disorders and is mentioned by name in the piece and its title. It’s unclear to me why they zero in on autism. They have a couple vague pieces of evidence that are autism-specific, but the vast majority of what they’re looking at has never been demonstrated to have any kind of relationship to autism, not even a correlation.
Problem #1 is the unnecessary autism name-checking. Problem #2 is much worse, it’s the list of 10 chemicals they suggest for future study. The list itself isn’t a bad idea, I guess. They’re suggesting places for potential research, which certainly needs to be done. But it does reek a little bit of the kind of thing magazines do, you know what I mean, 10 Ways To Get Your Guy All Fired Up! and such. Still, it’s their prerogative.
So let’s examine their evidence for these suggestions. They cite at least one paper for each of these chemicals. I checked them all. The vast majority of them have never shown any connection to Autism (or even ADHD, another diagnosis they name-check). In fact, many of them show that with exposure to these chemicals, the outcome differentials between exposure and non-exposure is 5 IQ points.
FIVE IQ POINTS. Statistically significant? Perhaps. Practically important for a parent? No.
IQ itself is a strange and vague thing. And 5 points isn’t going to move your super-genius down to the level of an average person They’d still be a super-genius. And adding 5 points to someone with severe deficits isn’t going to make them average, either. It’s hard to imagine what difference you’d see between two people whose IQ’s are 5 points apart.
Such statistical differences may well be a sign to warrant further study. And they may be a sign that these chemicals affect neurological development. But it’s getting a bit ahead of ourselves to say they are suspected of being tied to autism. Many of these papers are in areas of research that are just beginning. Many of them involve homogeneous groups (for example, all the participants are Mexican-American migrant workers) which makes issues of genetics and heredity very difficult to account for. Many involve parents self-reporting by filling out surveys rather than having the children examined by professionals.
Let’s be fair. These are the very beginnings of research. You’ll need to do all sorts of rigorous testing and consideration to make real connections. Of course more research is needed. And it’s important that we keep that in mind as we move forward.
(Though, of course, no one else will.)
Part Four: The Press Release
The op-ed is about publicity so it’s the beginning of the problem. But it gets worse.A press release comes out with the list of ten chemicals and already the twisting starts. These are chemicals suggested for further research, but suddenly they’re a ”List of the Top Ten Toxic Chemicals Suspected to Cause Autism and Learning Disabilities.” This, unsurprisingly, is the headline you’ll see all over the internet when news organizations report on the press release. Already it’s turned from suggestions for research into a watchlist.
It gets worse. The press release has this second headline:
The editorial was published alongside four other papers — each suggesting a link between toxic chemicals and autism.
No, actually that’s not at all accurate.
Let’s start with the first paper, which examines the possibility of a connection between maternal smoking and autism. What’s their conclusion?
The primary analyses indicated a slightly inverse association with all ASDs[.]
What does that mean? Among the autistic kids vs. regular kids, there was actually LESS maternal smoking in the autism group. The paper does point out that when it comes to “subgroups,” for instance high-functioning ASD or Asperger’s, there may be a possibly positive relationship. But there are so many caveats I can’t even get to them all. Let’s just take this one:
The ASD subgroup variables were imperfect, relying on the child’s access to evaluation services and the documentation by a myriad of community providers, rather than direct clinical observation.
This means that when they’re saying some groups of ASD kids may have this relationship, they didn’t actually classify these kids. They never saw these kids. They’re relying on data collected by other people. Not even by a consistent set of people. It comes from 11 different states and who knows how many providers. Who’s to say how accurate any of it is. And who’s to say whether these kids are correctly classified at their particular place on the spectrum.
So take all that with a whole jar full of salt and you’re still looking at, overall, no connection with smoking. If anything, the data would indicate smoking has LESS autism rather than more.
After this there are 2 papers on the same chemical. One of them does not contain the word “autism” anywhere. (One of its references has it, but nowhere does it appear in the text of their paper.) The second paper is better. It focuses on the chemical’s effects in particular processes which have been linked to autism. This is very micro-scale science, there are no people involved, just cells and chemicals. It’s important research, but there’s a long stretch between cellular interactions and a person’s diagnosis. It didn’t involve any analysis with autistic individuals. This is certainly the most useful paper of the bunch by a long shot, but it still just sets the stage for further research.
The fourth paper is a review. That means it asserts no new information but summarizes the research on a particular issue, specifically pesticides and autism. Technically I suppose it does assert a link, but none of this is new information.
So I think we’ve pretty much destroyed the headline in that press release. There were not 4 articles suggesting a connection between chemicals and autism.
Is it likely that the writers who take this press release and write articles on it are going to read the papers it cites? Are they going to realize that what they’re saying isn’t actually true? They should. Of course they should. But they don’t.
This list has chemicals suspected of being tied to neurological development. And we should just leave it at that. It’s not that they shouldn’t be studied. They should. But we shouldn’t be throwing out buzzwords like ADHD and Autism when the research doesn’t show any firm data.
Part Five: News Articles
This is a process, though. First research, then op-ed, then press release and finally news articles. So what’s the headline of our news article? “Top 10 Chemicals Most Likely to Cause Autism and Learning Disabilities.” Guilty of serious fearmongering, no? A more accurate title may be: Researchers propose list of chemicals potentially tied to neurological development for further study. But I doubt anyone’s going to write that.
The article itself, to be fair, is full of caveats. The reasons for the increase in autism are “controversial.” There is a “gap in the science.” But then you get a sentence like this:
But clearly, there is more to the story than simply genetics, as the increases are far too rapid to be of purely genetic origin.
Clearly? Clearly says who? What source says it’s too rapid? The author certainly isn’t a reliable source. She is Robyn O’Brien, a writer for Prevention who posted this article. Her scientific credentials are nonexistent. She is a former financial analyst who now writes about the food industry. She has an MBA, and her undergraduate was in French and Spanish.
Full disclosure: I have a B.S. in Biochemistry, but I feel I’m unqualified to write this article. I’d much rather it be written by someone with a PhD. I’m married to a PhD, which has given me a lot more exposure to science since leaving school, but I fully acknowledge that I shouldn’t be the one doing this. I know how to read a scientific article and examine its conclusions, but I certainly am not someone who can tell you if their methods and analysis are correct.
But I’m talking because there aren’t enough people talking about it. Because the PhD’s aren’t generally science writers. They are scientists. They write about their research in journals, not in the newspaper. And certainly not on a blog for a healthy living magazine.
The author goes on to restate the inaccurate subheadline of the press release verbatim.
In the end she suggests things like buying organic produce, opening your windows and buying BPA-free products.
This is part 5 of our process, but it’s where many of us start. Many of us will only read this article and not the press release or the op-ed or the research papers. Most of us aren’t qualified to do so, all we have is this article. Well, we have that and what other people tell us. Which leads us to our next step.
Part Six: Readers
The article is frustrating, but I can only get so mad. She is saying what the scientists told her to say. She has even included some cautionary language. The problem is that when writing for laymen, you have to be careful.
And with AUTISM? You have to be really careful. Just for you I’m going to venture into the comments to this article to show you how people have responded.
–How about we quit injecting our kids with aluminum, formaldehyde and the rest of the toxic stew that they call vaccines — we bypass every natural defense our bodies have (skin, saliva, stomach acid) to put these things directly in the blood stream.
–Thank you Robyn for always providing sound information to continue guiding our decisions.
–What about heavy metals like Arsenic that are trapped in soils that our “organic” brown rice is growing in to be made into brown rice syrup to sweeten organic foods and baby formula? Not to mention the reports coming in regarding the radiation and contamination from Fukushimi that has reached the west coast an is spreading across this country in the produce and even the pollen…
–Unvaccinated children are some of the healthiest little people on the planet. As far as the Autism link, who really knows but why risk it.
–Thank you for this information. It confirms to me that we should keep doing what we are doing. It also helps me to enforce our no shoes policy in our home. Some people are so disrespectful and just don’t take them off and I hate to sound like a nag and ask even though they already know its what we prefer.
Thankfully there are some people in there who take the writer to task, but how is a reader to trust any one commenter over another? You have no way of knowing from a comment what someone’s experiences or qualifications are.
There’s a reason we need responsible scientific reporting. I’m all for the open dissemination of information, but I’m also aware of what happens when people read something they don’t understand.
I encountered this FB conversation the other day. Usually I overlook such things but I could not help myself. I jumped in. I tried hard to be polite and present facts. When all that was over, no one was convinced. The response?
Enough articles on vaccines and people are scared even without evidence. Enough headlines and people don’t bother reading articles. It doesn’t matter how much is retracted or debunked, the damage is done.
We need responsible science reporting. We need responsible reporting, period. I’ve seen plenty of lazy articles on Supreme Court opinions that lead me to read the opinion myself only to realize that they’ve stated the conclusions all wrong.
I don’t want to go on all day, but I do feel like it’s important for us to put our foot down and demand better.
We aren’t all scientists. But we can ask for science writers with the appropriate qualifications. We can ask for links and citations in their articles. (I spent quite some time tracking everything down for this post, and luckily I’m relatively familiar with looking up scientific articles online.) We can ask for articles that show failed connections. It doesn’t all have to be “Autism linked to X” there’s plenty of “Autism not linked to Y” that happens in these studies but you never see that, do you?
As for us laymen, we have to find our own trusted experts. Ask your pediatrician. And if your pediatrician’s not qualified (most of them are MD’s but not PhD’s) ask them if they have a trusted source. Track down specialists in Autism with PhD’s and ask them what they think of the research. Find reliable books and articles and spread them to your friends. We can’t necessarily do a lot, but we can do our part to stop the spread of misinformation and demand better.
These views are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily either reflect or disagree with those of the DXS editorial team.
How often have you wished for an extra hour or extra day to get everything you need done? At the Autism Science Foundation (ASF), we want to make the most of this special leap day by using it to help autism science leap forward.
Thanks to your support, for the last two years we have provided funding for autism stakeholders (parents, individuals with autism, teachers, students, etc) to attend the International Meeting for Autism Research (IMFAR). All donations made today, February 29, 2012, will go directly to our IMFAR Travel Grants program, helping us provide more scholarships to IMFAR 2012 in Toronto where they will share their real world autism experience with scientists. These stakeholders will then bring the latest autism science back into our communities helping the science take a giant leap forward.
After attending IMFAR, past grant recipients have: – Organized a five day autism science seminar at Barnard College – Presented critical autism research information to nurses in Philadelphia – Produced multiple blog posts that reached thousands of readers around the world – Organized an autism awareness club and speaker series at Yale College
And thanks to a generous donor, all donations made today (February 29, 2012) will be matched dollar for dollar for an extra big leap.
The Autism Science Foundation was founded in 2009 as a nonprofit corporation organized for charitable and educational purposes, and exempt from taxation under section 501(c)(3) of the IRS code.
The Autism Science Foundation’s mission is to support autism research by providing funding and other assistance to scientists and organizations conducting, facilitating, publicizing and disseminating autism research. The organization also provides information about autism to the general public and serves to increase awareness of autism spectrum disorders and the needs of individuals and families affected by autism.
If a child is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), it is because they have gone through a number of rigorous behavioral tests, often over a period of time, and never straightforward. Of course, this time can be a stressful for parents or caregivers, and sometimes the answers can lead to even more questions. One solution to the waiting and uncertainty would be to have a medical test that could more easily diagnose ASD. However, no one has been able to identify biomarkers – molecules in the body that can help define a specific medical condition – for the condition. Without this type of information, it is not possible to create a diagnostic test for autism.
Having been through this process with their son, who is on the autism spectrum, Clarkson University scientists Costel Darie and Alisa Woods have decided to work together to help address this issue. An interdisciplinary laboratory that combines hardcore proteomics (the study of the proteins we make) with cognitive neuroscience is probably not what you think of when it comes to running a family business. But for Darie and Woods, “marriage” has many meanings. This husband and wife team has combined their brainpower to embark on a scientific journey toward understanding some of the biochemistry behind autism, and they are walking on an increasingly popular path to help finance their work: crowdfunding.
A major goal of the Darie Lab is to identify biomarkers that are associated with autism and then to create a medical test to help alleviate some of the frustrations that come with the ASD diagnostic process. Using a technology called high-definition mass spectrometry, the Darie Lab has outlined a project to figure out the types of proteins that are in the saliva or blood of children with ASD and compare these protein profiles to the saliva or blood from children who are not on the autism spectrum. If the Darie Lab is successful, they might be able to help create a diagnostic test for early autism detection, which would undoubtedly fill a giant void in the field of autism research and treatment.
Here is how the experiment will work: The members of the Darie Lab will collect saliva (and/or blood) samples from children, half of whom are on the autism spectrum and half of whom are not. The researchers will prepare the saliva or blood and collect the proteins. Each protein will be analyzed by a high definition mass spectrometer, which is basically a small scale for measuring the weight and charge of a protein. The high definition mass spectrometer will transfer information about the proteins to a computer, with special software allowing the Darie Lab investigators to figure out the exact makeup of proteins in each sample.
The bottleneck when it comes to these experiments is not getting samples (saliva and blood are easy to collect), and it isn’t the high-tech high-definition mass spectrometer because they have access to one. Rather, the bottleneck comes from the very high cost of the analytical software they need. Because this software was not included in their annual laboratory budget but is critical to conducting this experiment, the Darie Lab is raising money through crowdfunding.
Why I think a contribution is worth the investment: Technology is always advancing, especially when it comes to protein biochemistry. The high-definition mass spectrometer is a recent technology, and according to the Darie Lab, they have been able to identify over 700 proteins in the saliva alone. This is quite an incredible step up from traditional mass spectrometers, which could detect only around 100 proteins in saliva. Just because we haven’t been able to identify biomarkers for autism in the past doesn’t mean we can’t do it now.
In addition to the use of this new technology, the Darie Lab presents some compelling preliminary evidence for a difference in protein profiles between those with ASD and those who do not have ASD. While they’ve examined only three autistic people and compared them to three non-ASD individuals, the two groups were clearly distinct in their saliva protein profiles. If this pattern holds up with an increased number of study participants, the implications could be quite significant for autism research.
Preliminary data from the Darie Lab shows that there are saliva proteins showing a 20X or greater difference between ASD (ovals) versus sibling non-ASD controls (rectangles).
If you decide to kick in some funds, your good deed will not go unrewarded. As a thank-you for contributing, the Darie Lab has offered up a few cool perks, including high-quality prints of microscopic images in the brain.
If you are looking for a good cause, look no further. I am excited to see how the Darie Lab crowdfund experience goes, and I wish them all the best in their quest, both as professionals and as parents. To find out more, or to make a donation, visit the Darie Lab RocketHub page.
Fluorescent images of the brain, available to those donating $100 or more.
The opinions expressed in this post do not necessarily agree or conflict with those of the DXS editorial team and contributors.