There's been plenty of outrage directed at Michael Savage since the talk radio host recently made his controversial remarks about autism. Parent groups of children with autism are calling for his head, and some advertisers have started dropping Savage as a result of his comments. Talk Radio Network, which syndicates Savage's show to more than 350 affiliates, is standing behind Savage. Here's what Savage, who's known for his incendiary style, said during the show:
Now, the illness du jour is autism. You know what autism is? I'll tell you what autism is. In 99 percent of the cases, it's a brat who hasn't been told to cut the act out. That's what autism is.... What do you mean they scream and they're silent? They don't have a father around to tell them, 'Don't act like a moron. You'll get nowhere in life. Stop acting like a putz. Straighten up. Act like a man. Don't sit there crying and screaming, idiot.' Autism—everybody has an illness. If I behaved like a fool, my father called me a fool. And he said to me, 'Don't behave like a fool.' The worst thing he said—'Don't behave like a fool. Don't be anybody's dummy. Don't sound like an idiot. Don't act like a girl. Don't cry.' That's what I was raised with. That's what you should raise your children with. Stop with the sensitivity training. You're turning your son into a girl, and you're turning your nation into a nation of losers and beaten men.
I searched for studies linking dads or their parenting skills to autism, a developmental disorder that affects a child's ability to communicate effectively, and couldn't find much. (Please E-mail or post a comment if you're aware of evidence I missed). In decades past, some psychologists did put the blame on "refrigerator mothers," who were accused of causing autism by being emotionally distant and cold to their children. But that's an idea that researchers have debunked. Most researchers believe there is no one simple cause but that a complex interplay of genetic and environmental factors come together to cause the disease in most cases. Studies of identical twins have shown a clear genetic component, but there's also plenty of strong evidence that prenatal exposure to certain chemicals or infectious agents—such as thalidomide or the rubella virus—causes some cases of autism, too.
I found it ironic that Savage called for parents to chide a child with autistic tendencies to "act like a man," given that many leading researchers consider autism to be an extreme manifestation of the male brain. In fact, one theory that's attracting attention is that fetuses that produce high levels of testosterone in the womb have a tendency to exhibit autistic behavior as young children. And it seems to me that the messages society directs toward boys about "sucking it up" could actually exacerbate any tendencies to withdraw. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's latest count, the prevalence of autism among boys is between 2.8 and 5 times that of girls.
The bottom line: While it might be tempting to look for an easy answer, there isn't one.