Flu During Pregnancy Linked To Autism?

autism-facts-graphic2.jpgUpon watching the news and reading papers today, it came to my attention that several main stream media outlets are now reporting that a mother having the flu during pregnancy has been linked to her child having autism. The study, which both  ABC News and the
USA Today have widely reported on, is based on a questionnaire mothers were given during and shortly after pregnancy reporting overall health experienced during pregnancy. As the articles report, the results of the study found that mothers who experienced the flu during their pregnancies had a 1-2% increased chance of having children who would later be diagnosed with autism. 

When studies like this come out, I believe that they must be evaluated skeptically and scientifically before we accept them and change our lives based on their reports. For example, we know that no one really fully knows what causes autism, but several
ideas about its causes exist. One of my main problems with the new finding linking flu during pregnancy to autism is the possibility of too many third variables. This issue seems to suffer from the Texas sharp shooter problem, being that there are so many possible causes of autism that once we find a link, we mark it as being a cause. There is no way for this study to rule out any third variables that are often other possible causes of autism, and this problem does not yield itself to randomized control trials. The other problem I have with this study and makes me, as someone learning about critical thinking in SC200, skeptical is the timing of the questionnaire given to the mothers. The questionnaire was handed out during and just after pregnancy to avoid any problems of
recall bias. This may seem like a good idea so that mothers are reporting the most accurate symptoms and medical conditions possible, but it actually might make the study very inaccurate. As we know, symptoms of autism usually become present in children who have it between the ages of 18 months and 3 years. If autism is in fact caused by some type of factor experienced after birth, rather than developed in the womb, this gives the child large amounts of time to be exposed to whatever that factor may be between his or her mother filling out the research questionnaire and the diagnosis of the child with autism. It seems that, while this study could provide insights and advances for the future, it should be taken with a grain of salt for now. What do you guys think? Do you think that this is a good study or that chance and third variables are playing a part?


I agree with you, I think this study is really incomplete. Even in the USA Today article, it says that the study is exploratory. I think that it is an interesting possibility, but I don't see it being proven any time soon. There is so much time between the pregnancy and the child being diagnosed with autism. There are so many variables that can affect the child in the meantime. Additionally, this study kind of reminds me of when some scientists considered that vaccines caused autism. Those studies also showed a correlation, but those results are still being hotly debated. Will this study suffer the same fate?
Here's a recent article on the vaccine studies: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/11/vaccines-autism-controversy-why_n_1586898.html

Quoted from CNN Report

"Overall, we found little evidence that various types of mild common infectious diseases or febrile episodes during pregnancy were associated with ASD/infantile autism (autism spectrum disorders)," the study authors wrote.

I think this quite a reach. Remember correlation does not equal causation. Multiple reports touch on the fact that no one really has any idea what causes ASD.

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