Media coverage of autism study leaves out critical context

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There has been a lot of media attention on a new study published in Pediatrics that links obesity during pregnancy to increased risk of autism. The researchers studied more than 1,000 children in California and found that the risk of autism was 60% higher among those born to mothers who were obese, hypertensive or diabetic during their pregnancy.

Autism spectrum disorders appear to be on the rise in the United States, and research about the possible causes of this increase is vital. However, news coverage of this latest study is problematic because it frames autism as a problem that may primarily be the responsibility of mothers, giving little to no attention to the many social, cultural, and environmental factors that research has shown to contribute to obesity. For example, mothers cannot determine how many stores offer decently priced fresh foods. They cannot overpower the food and beverage industry that spends millions of dollars every hour marketing cheap fast foods and sugary beverages. They cannot single-handedly improve the safety of their neighborhoods to make them more walkable or conducive to physical activity.

Though most articles acknowledge the study's limits and caution against drawing premature conclusions about potential connections between obesity and autism, they nevertheless point to what pregnant women should be doing differently to lose weight. An LA Times article encourages diet and exercise in the first sentence, and NPR paraphrases a study author, saying, "[I]t's clearly a good idea for women who are overweight or obese to try to slim down before becoming pregnant."

This is not the first time that news coverage of a health issue has reinforced a "mother blaming" frame. For example, much coverage of breastfeeding, which has many known health benefits, tends to scold mothers who don't breastfeed rather than exploring the barriers in the workplace, hospital and other locations that make it hard for women to nurse.

Academics, professionals, and journalists who want to improve our public's health need to be critical of the contextual factors that influence it. Reporters -- and the advocates who talk with them -- should explain and illustrate the conditions that precede individual decision-making. By widening the lens, we will identify other institutions that are accountable, such as city councils or the food beverage industry, in the case of obesity, that can help provide healthier environments for mothers, children and all people alike.


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