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Oxford dons in autism spat

Two Oxford professors have been engaged in a high-profile disagreement about the causes of autism.

The row started after Baroness Susan Greenfield, Professor of Synaptic Pharmacology at Lincoln College and former director of the Royal Institution, suggested in an interview with the New Scientist that increasing use of the internet and electronic devices could be linked to autism in young people.

Greenfield claimed that this was likely to be a factor in the rising rates of autism diagnosis. She told Cherwell, “it is hard to see how obsessive cyber activities could not be having some impact on the brain, because the human brain has evolved to adapt to its environment”.

However Dorothy Bishop, a Professor of Neuropsychology at St John’s, has publicly attacked Greenfield’s suggestions, dismissing them in an open letter to her colleague as “illogical garbage”. Speaking to Cherwell, she said: “The specific problem concerns her [Baroness Greenfield] repeatedly mentioning autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) in connection with her concerns about dangers of internet use”.

Bishop denies that autism could be caused by behavioral factors such as spending time on the internet.  Quoting the American Psychiatric Association’s description of the condition, she said, “Autism spectrum disorder is a neurodevelopmental disorder and must be present from infancy or early childhood, but may not be detected until later because of minimal social demands and support from parents or caregivers in early years.”

She also criticised the forum in which Greenfield chose to express her views, commenting, “Greenfield is always billed in the media as a ‘top scientist’ but has stopped behaving like a scientist. Her theorising on digital technology does not appear in peer-reviewed journals; this is a great shame, as peer review is vital to ensure that one’s ideas are scholarly, balanced and plausible.”

Greenfield has sought to defend her comments against Bishop’s criticism. In a statement to Cherwell, she implied that her theories had been exaggerated in media reports. She said, “Inevitably, the nuances that I wished to bring out have been the casualty of an edited interview that was in any case relatively brief, given that we were ranging over many broad issues.”

The National Autistic Society, a leading UK autism charity, refused to be drawn into the dispute. Amanda Batten, Director of External Affairs, said, “The causes of autism are still being investigated… There is evidence to suggest both genetic and physical factors have a role to play”.

Neither the Faculty of Pharmacology nor the University responded to a request for a comment on the matter.

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