Is There Really an Autism Epidemic?

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Why have debates over autism grown more heated and prevalent in recent years? A new study hints at an explanation. Researchers found that the rate of autism among eight-year-olds in the United States has risen 50 percent in the past two years. The figures are dramatic, but columnists caution that they may not tell the whole story.

  • Rising Numbers Caused by Greater Awareness At Time Magazine, Claudia Wallis says the spike in reported autism may not be as severe as people think. Greater awareness and a broader definition of the disorder may be inflating the numbers, she writes.
Several factors other than a true increase in autism incidence have contributed to the ballooning numbers. These include greater awareness on the part of parents, pediatricians and educators; much broader definitions of autism than in decades past, when only the most severe form of the disorder was recognized (today, ASD includes the milder forms known as Asperger's syndrome and pervasive developmental disorder, not otherwise specified); earlier diagnosis of ASD, which can now be recognized by age 2 in many cases; and the growing availability of special services and interventions for children identified with ASD.
  • But Government Response Still Lackluster At The Huffington Post, David Kirby says he wasn't impressed with the government's less-than-urgent response to the latest study. He said a conference call between Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and autism advocates yielded more questions than answers. "It is easy to understand why the Feds would call autism an 'urgent' issue, but any sense of urgency by the officials on the phone was clearly absent, at least from my perspective. In fact, much of the discussion was centered around providing services and education to the growing ranks of Americans with ASD, an entirely laudable goal, to be sure."
  • Parents Forced to Exaggerate Children's Autism, Jody Becker writes at The Atlantic. "Parents whose kids' challenges are less severe are often urged to accept a full-fledged autism diagnosis, as otherwise they would lose access to state-funded treatment, and might, down the line, end up ineligible for support services in public school. The result is that the autism statistics grow and grow."
  • Watch Out for False Alarms At Mind Hacks, a neuroscience and psychology blog, Vaughn says there's a history of false alarms for "epidemics" that should be remembered.

I've happened upon an interesting snippet from the regular Nature "100 years ago" feature concerning a 1907 debate on whether insanity was really increasing or whether it just seemed that way due to changes in diagnosis and treatment methods. It made me smile because it is almost exactly the same argument that is being had now about whether cases of autism are genuinely increasing or whether this just reflects changes in diagnosis and treatment methods.

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