May 1, 2012

Autism: It’s the Mother’s Fault.

Photo: Yaffa Phillips

Mother Blame in the 21st Century.

Mothering is hard enough without believing that you are ultimately responsible for every factor of the child’s life, from infancy to adulthood.

How many times have you read a news story about a teen or young adult behaving poorly and seen comments related to how he/she was raised? How often have you listened to conversations about a child who is having issues in school and heard someone saying that the child’s parents need to be more involved (or assertive, or loving, or strict)?

These scenarios are not uncommon, at all. And, while there is generally enough blame to go around, mothers get the lion’s share when it comes to responsibility for child outcomes.

A few weeks ago, a study came out linking autism to maternal obesity.

Photo: Britt-Knee

The researchers were looking for connections between mother’s metabolic conditions, including obesity and diabetes, and children’s cognitive developments. While they weren’t able to find many connections that approached statistical significance, they did find a correlation between maternal obesity and diagnosis of autism. This then led to a number of claims, in media representations of the study, that mothers needed to watch their weight more carefully to avoid this risk.

But, there are a number of issues with these claims.

First, there is some possibility that this finding is spurious, and is due to seeking a connection, under an assumption that there would be one there. Many of the findings did not reach statistical significance, and even for those that did, the differences were relatively slight. Much more research will need to be done to replicate the findings before any real conclusions about the connection should be drawn.

Second, correlation is not causation. It is possible that there is a third factor impacting both maternal obesity and child development (genetics, environment). Even if there is a direct relationship between the two, such that obesity of a mother leads to increased risk of autism, it is entirely possible that there is a preceding factor that is responsible for the situation (for example, socio-economic status and lack of access to good nutrition, poor access to birth control creating pregnancies too close, and so on).

Third, rarely is anything caused by one factor. Even if there is a correlation between maternal obesity and child developmental disorders, this study certainly did not indicate that all, or even most, obese mothers had children with delays. Thus, there are other factors at work.

Finally, we need to be really careful in assuming that science = truth. In the mid 20th century, it was concluded that schizophrenia and autism were caused by mothers who showed little affection for their children (now referred to as the Refrigerator Mother Theory). Studies seemed to support this “truth,” until they didn’t.

The media reports emanating from this study represent only one of many examples of mother blame.

When a young adult or adolescent makes bad choices—using drugs, dropping out of school, drinking and driving, having a child too early or without appropriate resources—the first string of claims about the issue usually involve some degree of blame for the mother. Mothers are said to be too lax in supervision, overly easy on children, models of poor behavior, failures in socialization.

Photo: Hepingting

Little recognition is given to the reality that children are complex beings.

All individuals have many things impacting them. The life of a child is impacted by genetics (from mother and father), environment (including home, school, media, peers), and personal choice. At a relatively young age they are capable of making decisions that are not what their parents would wish.

By the late teens and twenties, parents have relatively little control over the choices made by their children, and part of the hugely difficult task of parenting in that time period is accepting that realization. It’s only made harder by the extent to which we blame parents for all negative outcomes. And then we wonder why mothers have become so obsessed with their children’s success that they literally select their college courses.

Not much is gained by placing blame, in most circumstances. Even if the cause of a situation can be pinpointed (and it usually cannot) to one individual, “a done bun can’t be undone,” and intense blame only creates shame, defensiveness, and hostility.

The task of mothering is hard enough without believing that you are ultimately responsible for every factor of the child’s life, from developmental progress to risk-taking behaviors, and everything in between.

So, let’s give the moms, and the dads, a break and understand that—while there are certainly exceptions—most of them are doing the best they can.

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dapperpeacock May 3, 2012 6:37am

I am curious to examine the link between risk factors for obesity in women and autism. Further research might indicate the systemic causative factors that create correlation between the two.

It is unfortunate that 21st century science would be so reductionist as to limit the symptoms of obesity to personal autonomy alone.

Thank you for the necessary reframing of perspective that our public health officials require.


Health Administrator Dude 🙂

guest May 2, 2012 8:45pm

"Finally, we need to be really careful in assuming that science = truth." no we don't. We have to be careful in assuming that a studies results=truth.(which is what you meant but not said)
as you said, correlation does not equal causation. But you also have the example why science is our best way of learning the truth: facts were considered the truth until they didn't. because people KEPT LOOKING. that's what science does. that's why science works: because it's self correcting. because you are designing your research (if you are honest) to disprove a point.

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Lorin Arnold

I’m a university professor, not-that-kind-of-doctor, family and gender communication scholar, spouse, vegan (not a real fur), and mother of six.  I’m a little goofy and a little serious, organized and kind of a mess. In my “spare” time, I teach yin and vinyasa yoga and write The VeganAsana – a blog about yoga and green eating/cooking.  I consider the blog, and my work with elephant journal my little effort to ponder yoga and veganism, and how they intersect, in a way that helps me develop understandings of self, provides information for others, and allows me to rock my creative smarty pants.