Utter Froth: Autism Epidemic Caused by the Film Rain Man!
Posted Jan 01 2013 12:00am
The remarkable claim that the autism epidemic is an artefact of the popularity of the film Rain Man is made by the
developmental psychologist and autism expert Prof Uta Frith of University College, London
in a recent BBC news item which purports to make fun of scientific
myths created by the movies. Frith is known for coining the concept of "theory of mind" in relation to autism in 1985 in collaboration with Simon Baron-Cohen , and also holds a professorship at Aarhus University, home of Poul Thorsen . The film Rain
Man, starring Dustin Hoffman, appeared in 1988. This is the relevant extract from the BBC news item:
Interviewer: “The film Rain Man was
actually the turning point in the awareness of autism.”
Frith: “If you look at the kind of curves
that you see about the prevalence of autism there was an apparent increase in
prevalence but of course it is really an increase in awareness.”
1987-8 was indeed the period in which
infants in the first wave of the autism epidemic in Britain and the United
States were being born, but of course they would not have been diagnosed in 1988, and
it seems preposterous that doctors and scientists (presumably including Prof
Frith) would have been so influenced by a popular film (they certainly should
not have been). In 1988, for instance, Prof Frith was 47 and had completed a
PhD on autism twenty years before - where, then, are all the cases that she missed? The film is about a middle-aged man not about young children. I can find no papers on Pubmed discussing, let alone supporting, a Rain Man hypothesis.
As it is this after dinner tittle-tattle will
now be repeated as solemn gospel by people who “heard it on the BBC”. It looks
more as if Prof Frith is trying to create myth here than destroy one. Why would she do that? Perhaps she ought to consult her conscience
about all the families desperately battling to obtain services for their
children while professionals engage in whimsical and misleading fantasies about
their historical predicament.
John Stone is UK Contributing Editor to Age of Autism.