Ear Infections, Antibiotics, and Autism

Our expert has not seen any professional literature suggesting that ear infections and/or the use of antibiotics cause autism.
I have a 5 year-old son who was diagnosed with autism over 2 years ago. I had read somewhere that there was a study done linking frequent ear infections and use of antibiotics with autism. When my son was an infant and in his early toddler years, he was "diagnosed" with ear infections quite often so I wondered if you had heard of the study or one similar to it.
I am not familiar with any professional literature in which ear infections or the use of antibiotics cause autism. Please notice that I have changed your question. Your question was about a "linkage" between these factors and autism. A linkage (a connection) does not necessarily indicate a direct or indirect cause.

There are several complex issues in your question that deserve attention. First, the diagnosis of autism can be very difficult to determine. I hope that your son has been examined by appropriate experts.

Current research indicates that autism is probably caused by lack of certain brain development prior to birth. Exactly how this lack of development of parts of the brain leads to the behaviors observed in autism is not clear at this time.

As many parents know, frequent ear infections can cause temporary or, in some cases, permanent hearing losses. When a young child is unable to hear, he or she may be perceived by others (parents as well as professionals) as inattentive or negative and may not develop language skills in a timely fashion. Sometimes, children who are unable to hear are thought to be autistic. And, some children who have hearing losses are also autistic. In fact, there are enough individuals with autism who also have hearing and/or vision impairments that there is a national organization specifically for such individuals and their family members. If you child does have both problems, contact The Autism Network for Hearing & Visually Impaired Persons.

I hope that your child is receiving appropriate intervention and that you are receiving the information and support parents need. Assuming you live in the United States, any child with autism certainly qualifies for an individualized educational program designed to meet his needs. For assistance in making sure your son's educational needs are being met, I suggest you contact the Parent Training and Information program in your area. Parent Training and Information (PTI) programs, located in each state, provide training and information to parents to enable them to participate more effectively with professionals in meeting the educational needs of children with disabilities. PTIs are usually staffed by experienced parents of children with disabilities. PTIs can help parents to:

  • Understand their children's specific needs,
  • Communicate more effectively with professionals,
  • Participate in the educational planning process,
  • Obtain information about relevant programs, services, and resources.

To learn about autism, be sure to contact the Autism Society of America.

Stanley D. Klein, Ph.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist

Stanley D. Klein, Ph.D., is the former Editor in Chief of Exceptional Parent magazine. A clinical psychologist and editor, Klein cofounded the magazine in 1971. Klein serves as a Research Associate in Medicine (Pediatrics) at Children's Hospital (Boston), where he teaches health care professionals about working with the parents of children with disabilities, with particular focus on the challenge of delivering difficult diagnostic news.

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