PSA: Tylenol Does Not Cause Autism (Or ADHD)
"Was your child diagnosed with autism? Did you take Acetaminophen during pregnancy?"
These are the questions asked in an advertisement that has been making the rounds on social media for the past few weeks, encouraging parents of autistic children to join a class action lawsuit against Tylenol, citing "studies" that found a link between autism and ADHD and acetaminophen.
It will probably not surprise you, however, to find that while these studies were widely reported a few years back, they did not actually prove that taking Tylenol during pregnancy could cause autism or ADHD. There were correlations, but these correlations largely only exist because Tylenol is the only pain medication that pregnant people can take, so of course some people who took Tylenol while pregnant ended up having children with autism or ADHD. It's literally just a numbers game.
This is like saying that only three percent of children with autism or ADHD have blonde hair without acknowledging the fact that only three percent of all human beings have blonde hair.
The conclusions reached by the studies do not claim to be definitive, either. A Spanish birth cohort study published in 2016 focused on 2644 mother-child pairs. Of these pairs, 40 percent of the mothers used Tylenol and the children of those who used Tylenol had slightly higher incidences of autism for males and ADHD for both genders — but admittedly did not account for other factors, including why the mother was taking Tylenol in the first place.
The authors of that study noted themselves that “Since ADHD and ASC [autism spectrum condition] have been associated with maternal infection and inflammation, despite adjustment for reported maternal chronic illness, urinary tract infection and fever, residual confounding by indication could still be a limitation.”
They also did not take into account whether or not the parents themselves were neurodivergent, which seems like a pretty important thing to consider, especially when both of ADHD and autism have strong genetic components.
As neurodiversity expert Jillian Enright pointed out in a Medium post debunking the studies, neurodivergence is highly heritable and also comes with certain common co-occurring conditions that cause the kind of pain that people might take Tylenol to manage. For instance, hypermobility disorders tend to be more common in people with autism and ADHD and those can sometimes be pretty painful (ie: I have ADHD and my knees and fingers bend backwards). People with autism or ADHD, women in particular, are likely to have anxiety, which can cause all kinds of pain including migraines, stomachaches and other issues.
Where this gets even sketchier is that on Twitter, promoted tweets about the lawsuit from class action advertising service Action Matters keep picking up corrections noting that these studies did not actually prove any causal link between Tylenol and autism, getting deleted, and being replaced with new promoted tweets that do not feature the correction, as multiple users have pointed out.
Also, while the page the tweet links to says that "long-term studies now show that taking the commonly suggested medication too often during pregnancy may cause serious harm to unborn children. Studies at the Cleveland Clinic and John Hopkins show a 20-30% increase in autism," it does not link to either of these studies.
This is perhaps because even those studies — which are not definitive and do not claim to be — say that there is no issue with taking Tylenol in small, normal doses and that it is still riskier to have a fever while pregnant.
Given this, it's unlikely that this class action lawsuit will succeed — but that's not even the issue. The issue is that these advertisements are spreading half-truths and propaganda designed to scare parents or make them feel like someone or something is to blame for their kid being neurodivergent. There's enough bad health woo surrounding both autism and ADHD as it is, we don't need any more of it.
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Robyn Pennacchia is a brilliant, fabulously talented and visually stunning angel of a human being, who shrugged off what she is pretty sure would have been a Tony Award-winning career in musical theater in order to write about stuff on the internet. Follow her on Twitter at @RobynElyse