Autism on the Rise?

According to figures published by the Department of Education, the incidence of autism and diagnoses of autism have risen a staggering 800% since 1993. Experts in analysis have challenged these figures on two grounds that the data collection method was flawed, and that the rate of diagnosis has been influenced by the wider recognition of autism and the loosened criteria for diagnosing autism.

The pertinent question is is the rise in autism diagnoses real, and if so, what accounts for the staggering rise in diagnoses of autism? The answers range from a difference in the way that autism is diagnosed to deliberate padding of the reports by school departments who are seeking to collect extra money for educating children with disorders in the autism spectrum.

Statistical Anomoly?

The reports of the prevalence of autism may be greatly exaggerated, according to many experts in analysis. Among other things, they point to the fact that the reported prevalence seems to rise almost geometrically, and that each year, there are not only newly diagnosed and reported cases of autism at the young ages when it is usually diagnosed, but at each succeeding age, and that, in fact, each year there are more children in each age group diagnosed with autism or autistic tendencies. In short, say many experts, the numbers just dont make sense.

One of the most likely answers to the question is that the rise in diagnoses is real but it doesnt represent a rise in actual cases of autism. Instead, the numbers are higher because the diagnostic criteria has been changed loosened so that more people fit the diagnosis. In addition, autism is more widely known and recognized, so more people are seeking a diagnosis for symptoms they may have overlooked.

Debate Shouldnt Be Stifled

One of the reasons that the debate over the supposed rise in diagnoses of autism is significant is that it could shed light on what causes autism. If there truly has been a rise in cases of autism in the past decade, it strongly suggests a cause other than genetics, and research could focus in that direction.

If the seeming rise is accounted for by better reporting and loosened diagnostic criteria, and there is no rise, then an environmental cause is less likely.

There are other reasons to suspect a cause that stems from the environment, though. Some researchers (notably Dr. Bernard Rimland) believe that autism is a reaction to heavy metal toxicity. Others have pointed to the fact that the prevalence of autism seems abnormally high in some geographic locations, suggesting that an environmental contaminant may be the trigger. Many feel that the cause is a combination of a genetic susceptibility to damage and a particular trigger that sets the damage in motion.

In addition to those theories, there are a growing number of people many of them diagnosed with autism or one of the autism spectrum disorders who believe that autism is not a ‘disorder at all, but a ‘neurological difference a different way of seeing and thinking caused by a different branch in the development of the brain. In their eyes, the diagnosis is a ‘social construct used to identify people who dont fit into the ‘norms dictated by society.