Autism Epidemic: Fact or Fiction?

There are questions over a possible autism epidemic given that the number of children diagnosed in the United States is twenty times higher than it was a generation ago. About one percent of all children are affected, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Scientists are striving to determine an explanation for the spike in diagnoses. While there have been several red herrings, the search for an environmental explanation has so far been fruitless.

Roy Richard Grinker, an anthropologist at George Washington University who has studied autism across the world, believes that what some are calling an epidemic is really an “epidemic of discovery.”  Grinker suggests that the percentage of people with autism has always been the same, but previously went undiagnosed or misdiagnosed.

Interestingly, autism appears to be the only disorder among the various developmental diagnostic categories that is on rise.  Diagnoses of cerebral palsy, mental retardation and epilepsy have all continued to be effectively stable over the past decade.

Autism is a spectrum disorder that ranges in severity; some specialists conclude that the increase in numbers can be attributed to more cases at the milder end of the spectrum being diagnosed. If this is the case and the disorder is simply being more widely recognized, then fears about a possible epidemic can be dismissed.

Despite a corresponding explosion of scientific research, families still have trouble caring for those affected.

“The sheer complexity of this phenomenon prevents any clear conclusions,” a report from the state Department of Developmental Services states. “What we do know is that the number of young children coming into the system each year is significantly greater than in the past, and that the demand for services to meet the needs of this special population will continue to grow.”

Many adults with autism have difficulty fitting into society, have a reduced likelihood of maintaining gainful employment, and struggle with the high costs of healthcare. Some try to live with the disorder, while others seek recovery through various treatments such as Applied Behavior Analysis. While a lot of issues surrounding the disorder continue to be unclear, one thing is certain: the way we diagnose, treat, and think about autism appear to be changing.

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