Ignore the headlines. Because no, C-sections do NOT cause autism.

When Michelle McLean’s eldest son was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, the Australian mum was left with a host of questions.

“I drove away that day thinking, ‘What did we do wrong?” she told Mamamia‘s daily news podcast, The Quicky. “‘Did we not show him enough love? Did we not hold him enough, hug him enough? Did I not read him enough stories? Did I not take him for walks and show him the sky, the trees, the birds?'”

That sense of guilt — though entirely misplaced — will be familiar to many parents of children living with autism. Sadly, it’s only perpetuated by misinformation peddled online and via social media that incorrectly and irresponsibly ties neurodevelopmental disorders to anything from diet to discipline.

But just last week there was a different kind of source. Mainstream media reported on a major research study that identified an association between autism and C-section births.

Given one third of Australian babies born each year are delivered via C-section, it’s understandable that the findings earned so much attention. And also why they may sound alarming for parents of c-section-delivered children living with autism — just like Michelle.

But experts are assuring everyone there’s absolutely no need to worry.

Listen: Autism researcher Dr Andrew Whitehouse explains the results of the study.

So, do C-sections cause autism or not?

No. Despite the sensationalist headlines, the results of the study do NOT mean that C-sections cause autism.

Speaking to Mamamia, Dr Andrew Whitehouse, head of autism research at Telethon Kids Institute, noted that the study simply confirms what researchers have known for 20 years — that there’s a “tiny, tiny” link between a woman having a C-section and the chances of the child developing autism.

But there’s an important distinction: “This study shows us absolutely nothing about whether C-sections cause autism.”

So what was the study saying?

The paper, published in the journal JAMA Network Open, looked at over 20 million births worldwide and identified a link between C-section deliveries and a slightly higher risk of the child developing Autism and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

Here’s when it’s important to note the difference between ‘correlation’ (a link between two things) and ‘causation’ (one thing directly causing another). This study was an example of the former.


“All this study did was count the number of children who were born via C-section and the chances that they’re going on to develop autism,” Dr Whitehouse said. “It was simply going through population databases to understand statistical association.

“If we actually want to do a deep-dive and start to understand anything more about the biology [involved in ASD] we have to look at biology. This study can’t do that, at all.”

The reality is, Dr Whitehouse said, there is currently no known cause of autism.

“There are lots of things that are associated with an increased chance the child might have autism. Lots and lots and lots of things, but we actually know nothing about whether they cause autism,” he said.

It’s little wonder, then, that there’s concern about the potential for the study and resulting media reports to be misinterpreted.

A now-discredited 1990s paper linking the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine to autism saw countless parents refuse to have their children immunised, despite the fact that it was categorically proven to be fraudulent and was later retracted. Scientific researchers have since repeatedly demonstrated (including via a recent 20-year study of more than 650,000 children) that there is absolutely no basis to the debunked study’s claims.

But the consequences linger. The dangerous ‘anti-vax’ movement chooses to ignore the overwhelming research demonstrating the safety of vaccines, thereby putting the lives of vulnerable members of the community at risk.

It’s why Michelle urges other parents of children on the autism spectrum to be wary of reports peddled online.

“It’s a worry, it’s upsetting and it creates unnecessary panic,” she said. “We’re always pointing the finger at ourselves as for what we did wrong. But I’ve come to the realisation that I haven’t done anything wrong.

“[Our son] is an incredible kid who’s got lots of friends. He’s absolutely thriving and we couldn’t be more proud of the person that he is.

“Brush the study off and continue doing what you’re doing, and just love and nurture your child.”

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