Blogging IMFAR: Autism And Divorce Debunked, Among Others

20 May

Autism And Divorce Debunked

Does anyone really believe that whopper of an urban-legend that goes something like this – “The divorce rate among families with autistic children is 80%!”?

Sure, many people do believe it, and I wrote about this topic when the Easter Seals Living with Autism survey results were released a little over a year ago, here. You probably won’t be surprised, but the often repeated 80% statistic looks like pure online mythology. Sullivan has the early notes here. And some of the more mainstream media have the story as well.

As pointed out previously by other LBRB commenters, and in addition to the Easter Seals “Living With Autism” survey, there is some existing science on the subject that essentially shows that autistic children are no more likely to live in divorced households than non-ASD children.

– Montes & Halterman, Psychological Functioning and Coping Among Mothers of Children With Autism: A Population-Based Study, Pediatrics 2007;119;e1040-e1046

– Montes & Halterman, Characteristics of school-age children with autism in the United States, J Dev Behav Pediatr. 2006;27:379–385

Well, now there’s a much larger research study heading for publication. I had the opportunity to sit down with Brian Freedman PhD, from the Kennedy Krieger Institute’s Center For Autism And Related Disorders in Baltimore, MD (the study’s lead author).

When asked about how he became interested in pursuing researching the 80% divorce rate urban legend, he explained that as a result of hearing concern about family stressors and divorce from families that he works with, he wanted to find the original source of the statistic. Freedman went on to explain that he set out locate a scientific source for the statistic, but that the science to support it just wasn’t out there.

On the topic of working with families regularly, Freedman also shared that, “an important consideration in providing information to families, is that the information provided is correct, and evidence-based”.

The results of the study were stated as follows at the press conference:

The weighted unadjusted percentage of children with ASD belonging to a family with two married biological or adoptive parents was 64%, as compared to 65.2% for children who do not have an ASD.

In fact, in addition to finding “no consistent evidence of an association between a child having an ASD diagnosis and that child living in a traditional vs. non-traditional family”, the abstract from Freedman’s research goes on to say that once variables of co-occurring psychiatric disorders are controlled for,
“our results show that a child with an ASD is slighty more likely than those without ASD to live in a traditional household”.

How does that translate to the 80% divorce rate myth? It blows it out of the water. The 80% divorce rate myth predicts that only 20% percent of autistic children would live with married parents (or at least it allows for that perception). Based on this research, reality would appear to dictate that 64% of autistic children live with two married parents, pretty much just like non-ASD kids.

Interestingly, and although no research is ever free of any limitations, this seems to be a large, and probably fairly population-representative study. The data for children originated with the National Survey for Child Health (Blumberg et al., 2009), which is not only very recent, it’s inclusive of over 77,000 children aged 3-17.

What? Low levels of “quality indicators” on autism websites?


Okay, so no one is going to be surprised by this one, at least LBRB readers aren’t anyway. An abstract presented at today’s press conference details research by a team at the Yale Child Study Center.

122.001 Pressence of Quality Indicators On Autism Websites. B. Reichow*1, J. Halpern2 and F. R. Volkmar3, (1)Yale Child Study Center, (2)Fordham University, (3)Yale School of Medicine

See page 452 of the online abstract book for the rest of the study detail, but I’ll save you some time, and share with you that if autism websites in general were being graded on the presence of some selected objective indicators of website quality, the majority would be getting an “F”. Most people probably wouldn’t eat in restaurants with failing health grades, why would they apparently seek information about autism from the internet? Perhaps that “why”, or even the implied assertion on my part that this is where people do get information about autism, will have to go undiscussed. The fact is, the websites that are out there (that turn up for very generic searches in popular search engines), are really lacking when it comes to quality indicators.

Results: On average, the 164 websites analyzed for this study suggested autism related websites contained less than 6 of 8 quality indicators. Nearly 1 in 5 websites offered a product or service for purchase, and/or promoted a miracle cure. These websites were also, on average, some of the least likely websites to contain the quality indicators.

As I was hoping to learn more about just what the website “quality indicators” were, I was fortunate enough to have a chance to sit down and chat briefly with study’s lead author, Brian Reichow. He shared some of the important ones with me, and I think most readers would agree with the importance of their presence on trusted websites – things like: clear authorship (who’s written the website’s content), the use of references (citing sources), website currency (out of date could be a problem), clear disclaimers with respect to expertise and advice, reading level, and presence of a clear feedback mechanism.

Yep, I do wonder if Left Brain/Right Brain was picked up in those top 100 searches conducted by these researchers, and yep, I wonder how LB/RB fared by their actual criteria.

Other interesting press conference items.

There were, of course, more abstracts presented than the two that interested me the most which I’ve described here. I’ll have to simply point them out with some very brief notes and abstract pages noted.

Kids learn better from their peers Page 17

104.004 Social Inclusion of Children with ASD at School: Effects of a Randomized Controlled Treatment Study. C. Kasari*, University of California, Los Angeles

Dr. Kasari shared some interesting results, that will probably seem like a no-brainer to many. It’s good to have some supporting science though. Autistic kids targeted along with peers for what looks to me like “inclusion intervention” (such as specific paired-friend playground activities during recess), did better on some specific social measurements than kids targeted for intervention, but not along with peers.

Sleep fMRI as a diagnostic tool? Page 125

107.002 Abnormal Brain Response to Language Stimuli in Sleeping Infants and Toddlers with ASD. L. T. Eyler*1, K. Pierce2 and E. Courchesne2, (1)University of California San Diego, (2)University of California, San Diego

Admittedly, I find this fascinating. There is emerging brain imaging and a tool that may lead to the ability to diagnosis of autism very early – like infant early. This particular research group has identified a potential abnormality in the laterality of language in autistic children, as identified by the use of a newly developed sleep fMRI. Of course this raises a million potential ethical quesitons, but it seems possible that understanding potential language acquisition issues could lead to the development of new adaptive and perhaps helpful early teaching/parenting/family strategies.

Tomorrow’s program

In case anyone wants to follow along in the program (see around page 12 of the PDF), I’ll be trying to attend the following tomorrow:

8:15-9:30 Keynote (Mouse Models…)

10:00-12:00 Oral Session Epidemiology 1

1:30-3:30 The Ethics of Communicating Scientific Risk

4:00 Tom Insel – IACC Upate

(Disclosure: my attendance at IMFAR was funded in part, by a travel grant from the Autism Science Foundation.)

6 Responses to “Blogging IMFAR: Autism And Divorce Debunked, Among Others”

  1. RAJ May 20, 2010 at 03:42 #

    There are 21 abstracts referring to the mirror neuron hypothesis in the PDF.

    A new study has debunked the mirror neuron hypothesis:

    The authors concluded:

    “These results, they conclude, argue strongly against the “dysfunctional mirror system hypothesis of autism” because they show that mirror system areas respond normally in individuals with autism. The authors, therefore, suggest that it may be more productive to re-focus autism research in more promising directions”.

    The first results of the California Twin Study was abstracted in the IMFAR program. The CATS study is the larget population based study on twins and debunked the Bailey et al 1995 twin study that found zero concordance rates in fraternal twins. The results confirm two more recent studies that concordance rates in fraternal twins, the Wisconsin twin study (unpublished) and Autism IAN twin study, that also reported between 15 – 25 concordance rates in fraternal twins.

    The Bailey et al twin study is the most referenced paper published since 1995 and forms the basis for the myth that autism is 90% heritable, a calulation based on finding not a single pair of concordant fraternal twins in all of England. The autism is 90% heritable myth has been debunked.

    It is always good to debunk myths of all kinds promoted by all sorts of people even those who serve on the editorial boards of peer reviewed autism journals.

  2. Sullivan May 20, 2010 at 04:38 #


    there are other posts here where you could discuss the California Twin Study…posts that actually discuss the results.

  3. Dwight December 16, 2010 at 06:19 #

    About the 80% divorce rate. I can believe that it is an urban myth, but the information given here about that study does not debunk that statistic.

    The 64% given is about whether an autistic child lives in a two parent home. That is NOT the same thing as a divorce rate. It is possible to have a 100% divorce rate AND a 64% two-parent home rate due to remarriage.

    This study asks the question “does the child live in a two-parent home?” To study a divorce rate, the question should be “have the child’s parents ever divorced?”

    The logic presented is the same as concluding that no child in a school class has ever taken a shower because they are all wearing clothes at the moment. Current condition is poor “proof” of past behavior.

    • Sullivan December 16, 2010 at 19:01 #


      I’d have to check the dataset again, but I know that in similar national surveys, they do check if the child is living with birth parents vs. remariage vs. single parent.

  4. KWombles December 16, 2010 at 19:27 #

    My post on divorce rates over at Science 2.0 is linked through my name.


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