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.