Doctor Spotlight: Charles Cowan, M.D.


Specialty: Pediatric autism
Hospital affiliation: Seattle Children’s Hospital, University of Washington

How did you come to choose autism as your medical specialty?
I’ve had an interest in children with developmental disabilities for more than 25 years, and started out as a general pediatrician. In the ’90s, we first began to see children who were recognized as having autism. I took an immediate interest in this population and was eager to learn more about autism, particularly in terms of developing better capabilities to diagnose it. So I guess it was really just a historical accident.

Why do you think autism has become such a prevalent diagnosis in recent years?
Well, it’s one of the bigger mysteries, and no one really knows the answer. Part of it is simply greater recognition of a problem that has existed for a long time, but was attributed to other things. Maybe we have just broadened our diagnostic approach. A belief is also held that children can show us the signs of change in the world; maybe the increased prevalence of autism reflects some kind of process in the environment.

What would you say is one of the most common misconceptions about autism or any autism spectrum disorder (ASD)?

One particularly troubling misconception, for which there is no evidence, is that autism is caused by vaccines, and, because of this, certain communities have exhibited inadequate immunization rates. There is also the unfounded belief that people with autism are violent, but again there is no evidence that they are more violent than anyone else. Autism is so different from one person to the next, it’s hard to convey a comprehensive, accurate understanding of the disorder to the public.

What are the most encouraging recent developments?  
The greatly increased public awareness: There has been a massive increase in research funding and resources to provide care for children who used to be invisible.

What is most rewarding about your work?

Children are resilient; they bounce back remarkably, and they have a joy for life that unfortunately sometimes adults lose, so it’s great to see their accomplishments.