In the years between 2006 and now, the incidence of autism in the USA has increased from 1 in 110 to 1 in every 88 children. Does this mean we have an epidemic on our hands, or is something else at play?
I have long-held that claims of autism being an epidemic is merely sensationalist fear-mongering on the part of the media and the ever-hungry research funding machine. There is absolutely no evidence that autism is an epidemic. Rather, we have become better at describing and therefore identifying it. Some other diagnoses have also been moved across to the autism umbrella as more knowledge has become available and therapists have viewed their patients through a different lens. As well, awareness has increased significantly, and the criteria for diagnosis broadened in the early 90s, in particular by including Asperger's Syndrome.
There are a range of sensible reasons for the increase in diagnosis of autism, the greatest being awareness.
Growing awareness tends to work just like a snowball. The further it runs, the fatter it gets. So as more people become aware of something, still more people consequently become aware, who then make even more people aware - and so the awareness-snowball continues to grow.
I believe acceptance is another significant factor. The history of the politics of autism has meant that until the very recent past, parents were frequently against labelling their children. Instead, families often hid their children from doctors if they thought something might be developmentally "wrong" - and they had very real reasons to do so. That's a whole 'nother article, but the quick version is that a diagnosis often meant parents would be told they had been inadequate and could even mean that children might be removed from the home and institutionalised due to such "inadequacy". It is really only since the 1990s that this fear of external judgement has begun to diminish, and parents have instead been free to focus their energies more on addressing the needs of their children. A diagnosis helps to do this, so people have become more pro-diagnosis as a result. My belief is that this shift has also led to a great deal more chance of a child being diagnosed, who would previously have not been.
So, the big question is...
Is Autism an “Epidemic” or Are We Just Noticing More People Who Have It?
(click to read the article in a new window)
I highly recommend this article for some insight into what's really going on, rather than buying into all that guff from the sensationalist media.