Sunday, May 23, 2010


One of the JoyFamily's favorite TV shows -- other than anything on the Food Network -- is the Discovery Channel's Mythbusters. As their website describes it,
the MYTHBUSTERS mix scientific method with gleeful curiosity and plain old-fashioned ingenuity to create their own signature style of explosive experimentation.

What the show's five attractive but geeky mythbusting co-hosts do is take a pop-culture myth, often a common trope from movies or cartoons: Can you really slip on a banana peel? Is it truly possible to knock someone's socks off a la Charlie Brown on the pitcher's mound? Then they plot out test-able hypotheses, generally involving a healthy dollop of physics and preferably involving either explosions or car crashes. And then they perform the experiments, record and examine the results, and re-formulate for follow-up attempts. Many shows end with a solemn-yet-gleeful declaration that "This myth is... BUSTED!" Or in some cases, the myth is confirmed, but with caveats -- they were, for example, eventually able to knock the socks off a crash-test dummy, but it took a semi-truck to generate the appropriate impact!

And it doesn't even feel like a science lesson, and is aimed to appeal to adults as well as kids. Magnificent. (JoyDad and I think that the co-hosts have THE BEST jobs!)

Well, out there in the real world, scientific researchers actually do sometimes get to bust myths, though it's rarely so quick and flashy and explosive and definitive.

There's been some fascinating reporting on the annual IMFAR conference, the International Meeting for Autism Research, coming out of the blog Left Brain/Right Brain these past few days. Two presentations in particular had interesting myth-busting overtones.

One of the studies took on the widely-quoted but poorly-sourced notion that the divorce rate for couples raising children with autism hovers around 80%. A certain set of bloggers have suspected for some time that the rate is way overblown; I think I first read about the lack of a scientific source for the 80% figure on AutismVox.

The mythbusting study presented at IMFAR this weekend came out of the Kennedy Krieger institute in Baltimore. Brian Freedman and his co-authors examined data from the 2007 National Survey of Children's Health and found, as reported at Left Brain/Right Brain,
The weighted unadjusted percentage of children with ASD belonging to a family with two married biological or adoptive parents was 64%, as compared to 65.2% for children who do not have an ASD.

In other words, the percentage of kiddos with ASD living in two-parent families is essentially the same as for kiddos without ASD. In the absence of any evidence other than hearsay to support the 80% figure in the first place... this myth is BUSTED.

It's important to have the record straight on this because when a child gets a diagnosis of ASD, it's an immense thing for parents to process. Now imagine that when you're told that your child has autism, you're also told that the chances of your marriage breaking up are 4 out of 5. As the lead author of the study put it, it's "almost like getting a diagnosis of autism and a diagnosis of divorce at the same time." Here's hoping that this study really does put the autism divorce rate myth out of its misery.

I hadn't been aware that the divorce-rate study was underway, but had been tracking another study that was presented at IMFAR -- this one out of the University of Rochester, looking at the gluten-free casein-free (GFCF) diet for autism. I blogged about this back in February when I and two fellow trainees presented on the GFCF diet in our LEND seminar. The GFCF diet is a hot topic in autism treatment, with lots of families on board and claims of efficacy rates as high as 80 or 90 percent.

The double-blinded, placebo-controlled study at the University of Rochester took on the difficult task of getting all the children in both study groups onto the same GFCF diet and similar behavioral treatment programs, and then gave one of the groups small amounts of gluten & casein in "challenge snacks" to see whether it would make a difference. The children had been screened in advance for celiac disease and intolerances to wheat and dairy; it's already known that GFCF can help in those situations, but the study wanted to examine whether the diet "worked" when THE issue was autism.

The findings? In the words of Susan Hyman, the principal investigator,
It would have been wonderful for children with autism and their families if we found that the GFCF diet could really help, but this small study didn’t show significant benefits.

The tangled thicket of gastrointestinal issues and autism won't be solved by any single study. The GFCF episode of Autism Mythbusters isn't over by a long shot. But this study is an important piece of evidence on the -- dare I say -- "busted" side of the ledger.


Anonymous said...

Wow. I can sure tell your schedule demands have changed - running to keep up with you!

Excellent post!

I am witnessing the purveyors of GFCF diets move into the general population as a close friend of mine is now on the bandwagon - hoping this will make her feel much better. Since SOME people do have celiac disease/intolerances - purveyors are bound to have some success.

I guess your mythbusting will have to be in the interpretation of science and literature for the rest of us - hoping you find that a 'best' job - 'cause you are very good at it! Barbara

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Hi JM! Love your blog! Saw that new data on divorce rates among "autistic" parents - always wondered about those figures. Now we know! I think I blogged a few years ago about a study linking lower family income to having an autistic child - far from sturdy stuff that. Anyhow, glad to find you! Holy cow - is that really you jumping?

JoyMama said...

Barbara - yeah, give me a bit of down-time and the posts come pouring out! The pace will change again come June, no doubt.

Polly - thanks and welcome! I think that lower SES is linked with a number of developmental disabilities -- with autism, though, there's at least some data that links it to *higher* education and income. Could be several reasons for that... at any rate, yes, it's me in the photo, albeit a younger & thinner me. The ol' swimmin' hole under the bridge was actually 8 or 9 feet deep, but it looks impressively risky, doesn't it?