Headlines and the Frightened Mind

My oldest son is autistic. Because of Cindy’s professional background, we were able to see the signs early and have him diagnosed. Thankfully, Adron’s condition is highly manageable and he lives a life not unlike most teenage boys. He plays baseball, is a manager for his high school’s team, and mows the yard. He is getting the teen grumpies and is starting to challenge his father just about the same way millions of other kids do. His little brother aggravates him endlessly and he retaliates by chasing Wayne around the house, just as he should (but don’t tell him that–he is big enough to damage things).

We are lucky, and we don’t make a big deal of his autism. In fact, we encourage Adron to be perfectly open about it. He explains things when appropriate and people all in all have been wonderful about accepting him. Other parents have not been so lucky, and we sympathize with them. Autism can be hard to manage and it is no wonder that they look for reasons that their child has been afflicted.

This morning, as I scanned the news, I noticed several articles on a new study involving twins. Actually, there were two studies, each of which suggests that environmental factors in addition to genetics may play a role in autism. The details are not important–this is not a medical blog–but the articles are instructive for what they say and how they say it.

For people actually reading the articles to the end, they were hardly ground-shaking findings. Contrary to other studies, they seem to suggest that (mostly unspecified) environmental factors may play a role along with genetics. A proper headline might have read: “Environmental Factors May Play a Role in Autism” or something of that nature. Some did, but many played to fears of something the mother did during pregnancy or that research money tainted findings. And there is always the vaccine crowd, who translate most any finding into support for the thimerosal link.

I would love to know what caused Adron’s autism, but I don’t. Neither does Jenny McCarthy*. I do know this, though. Fear motivates. Often, it serves its evolutionary purpose and tells us to run when we are in danger. Many times, though, it causes us to be foolish–like refusing vaccinations. To journalists’ delight, a fearful mind sees ghosts in every closet and monsters under every bed. Inducing guilt in expectant mothers who manage their depression sensibly pays. Scaring parents of autistic children who have, quite rationally, wanted their children protected against disease beats my yawn-inspiring example in spades–if the intent is to sell news.

A ghost never hurt anyone, regardless of what you have heard about the Bell Witch, but many an ankle has been turned running from an imagined one. In a few more years, we will probably know what causes autism. It will probably be some mundane explanation, but we can’t know until we sort through massive amounts of research. In the meantime, let’s remember that fear sells and fear kills. Better to stop and think before believing the headlines.


*Other things impair clear thinking as well. When I saw the above magazine cover, I briefly confused my positive memories of some other photos with her expertise in medical research.

About Terry Noel

I am an Associate Professor of Management and Quantitative Methods at Illinois State University. My specialty is entrepreneurship.
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1 Response to Headlines and the Frightened Mind

  1. Deb S. says:

    It is hard sometimes to weed out good information from uh, ca-ca. Especially when it comes to our kids, it seems. My eldest son (now 23 years old) was diagnosed ADHD when he was very young. Years of allowing him to be treated for that did not resolve his behavior/learning (strike learning, insert classroom) problems, and now as an adult they’re treating him for depression and psych issues. I always wonder what I could have done differently for him that would have made for a better outcome… which one of the many people who wrote books to express their opinions on the matter actually might have had a clue, or an opinion worth noting. I’ll probably never know, and even if I did I doubt I could change things for him at this point. That stings. xoxo


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