TV might cause autism?


Aug 26, 2008

The headline says it all. That’s the potential finding from a Cornell study that found a statistically significant relationship between autism rates and television watching by children under the age of 3, according to a fascinating article by Gregg Easterbrook in Slate.

The effect of early childhood on the brain is significant and cries for more good research. In the book Disrupting Class, we draw on Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley’s work that shows that one of the fundamental reasons some children struggle to learn is that they don’t hear enough words before they reach the age of 3 and benefit from “language dancing.”

This raises many questions. Among them: Could a busy parent simply turn on the television and put the infant in front of it so they could hear the requisite number of words? The answer from research is a clear no. That sort of “background noise” has insignificant impact on a child’s intellect. But this Cornell study raises some questions here – maybe sitting the child in front of the TV would affect the brain in other ways.

This also leads us to think that the existence of multiple types of intelligences has its roots in the process in early childhood where our neural pathways are emblazoned in the brain. Babies who hear “extra talk” perhaps have strong verbal-linguistic intelligence; maybe listening to music helps produce stronger musical intelligence. And being disproportionately exposed to certain things like TV perhaps has strong effects on the brain, too.

As we advocate for more online learning, we need to be cognizant of how the medium for our information could in fact change how we think. Nicholas Carr writes about this phenomenon in the July/August cover story for the Atlantic Monthly titled, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?

Of course, if the real world is changing regardless of whether we think it is good idea, and if students need to think differently to cope in this new world, we probably need to change how students learn in schools to match that evolution. We might also wonder if students in fact learn differently now than did students of an earlier generation, and if this, too, calls for different forms of learning.

There is mixed research on this last question to be sure. What do others think?

– Michael Horn

Michael is a co-founder and distinguished fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute. He currently works as a principal consultant for Entangled Solutions.