Mapping autism

The conclusion of this recent Newsweek article, Geography of Autism, points to the uncertainty of studies seeking to link the disease with environmental exposures.  “It’s a working hypothesis,” says autism researcher Angelica Ronald at Birkbeck, University of London.

This recent study sought to make the association by focusing on diagnoses for male genital malformations, specifically micropenis and hypospadias, which suggest possible environmental toxins in the area, like lead or pesticides.  “The idea of the study is to use malformation rates in newborn boys as the canary in the coal mine,” according to Andrey Rzhetsky, a professor in the department of human genetics at the University of Chicago and study author.


The researchers looked at insurance information for almost 100 million people in all 50 states, focusing on autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and male genital malformation diagnoses, income levels, ethnicity, reported viral infections, urban v. rural location, and state diagnostic standards. Their conclusions: the greater amount of malformations in boys, the greater the autism rates in the area, suggesting a correlation between environmental factors and autism diagnoses.  The study specifically reports “an increase in ASD incidence by 283% for every percent increase in the incidence of malformations” in males.

Previous spatial studies of autism have led to conclusions that geographic clustering is due to the educational level of parents and location of autism treatment centers, or rural v. urban locations.

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