Autism Unexpected: Is There an Autism Epidemic?


Nobody really knows what causes autism.

There are a lot of theories wafting around out there. Really, a lot.

One of the most widespread theories is that vaccines cause autism. (Scientifically disproven.) Some people think it is genetic. (I do.) Some people think it is genetic, but kick-started by an environmental trigger. (Seems plausible.)

It seems that every week there is a new study claiming a correlation between Factor XYZ and autism. We’ve come a long way from the days when mothers were blamed for their children’s autism by calling them refrigerator mothers. But — have you heard the claim that mothers who live close to highways have kids with autism? Or that living in a rainy climate leads to autism?

Just today, I read about a study claiming that children conceived in winter were more likely to have autism.

Regardless of cause (and it is also important to note that just because there is a correlation, it doesn’t mean that there is a cause), there is a general belief that there is an autism epidemic. Since my own family has been in the autism world, the data changed from one in 166 children having autism to one in 110.

What is responsible for this increase in diagnosed children on the autism spectrum? Why are more kids autistic now than were autistic 20 years ago? Well, one new study suggests that the rate of autism is the same in adults and children, meaning that the increase in numbers may only indicate an increase in diagnoses and a broadening of the spectrum—not, in fact, an increase in the number of people with autism.

Researchers in England found that adults (ages 16 and older) have about a 1 percent rate of autism, similar to that of children.

The study looked at more than 7,000 adults who participated in an initial interview. Of those, 618 then went through diagnostic assessments. This study is different from previous studies that relied on individuals to self-identify as autistic, thus discovering adults who, prior to the study, did not know that they were autistic.

What does this mean? It seems to indicate that if the adults of years past were subject to today’s awareness and diagnostic practices, that the autism rate may actually have held steady all along.

Is autism just an inherent part of the human condition and, for better or for worse, will 1 percent of humans always be autistic?

For me, this study confirms what I have thought for a long time. While I acknowledge that autism and its causes are incredibly complex, I believed, for a long time, that much of the increase in the autism rate is because of improved awareness and a broadening of the diagnosis.

I imagine that many of today’s Aspergians may not have fit into what was a smaller autism spectrum 40 years ago, but, based on today’s diagnostic criteria, they count as part of that 1 percent. Perhaps without awareness of the red flags of autism, fifteen years ago, a child like my own son would have been labeled as a misbehaving loner, instead of a child with autism.

In fact, I see so many parents of children with autism who don’t understand their own autistic tendencies until their children are diagnosed.

What I do know is that my son has autism, as do millions of other children and adults. Regardless of the cause, we must make sure that these individuals get the treatments and support they need and desire. Whether the rate is increasing or not, these individuals need both services and understanding.

As research progresses, it will be interesting to see where autism rates go from here.

Originally published at Autism Unexpected on May 6, 2011.

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