Large Climb in Autism Rates due to Changes in Diagnostic Criteria

With the amount of autism diagnoses increasing in both the United States and internationally, researchers are examining just why this number has jumped so high. According to Danish researchers, the dramatic climb in the number of children diagnosed with ASD is due to how the disorder is reported.

With many parents concerned that the increase in autism diagnoses is due to more kids developing the disorder, they may be relieved to find that the large increase is due to more specifications and changes in diagnostic criteria, as well as the inclusion of diagnoses that take place out of the hospital.

Stefan Hansen, lead researcher from the Department of Public Health at Aarhus University, states, “ The increase until now has been left more or less unexplained, [which] undoubtedly raised considerable concern among the public, and might, in fact, have affected some parents’ health decisions regarding their child.” Many parents and caregivers have had concerns that changes in the environment have contributed to a rise in autism diagnoses.

Hansen states, “As our study shows, much of the increase can be attributed to the redefinition of what autism is and which diagnoses are reported,” He continues, “The increase in the observed autism prevalence is not due alone to environmental factors that we have not yet discovered.” Autism disorders are complex and varied, and therefore the symptoms are much broader than they were in the past. As a result, more children have been diagnosed on the spectrum.

For example, in Denmark, the diagnostic criteria that was previously used by clinicians to establish a diagnosis, was changed in 1994, as autism was recognized as a range of disorders. In 1995, the national health registries in Denmark also began to include diagnoses outside of hospitals.  As a result, more diagnoses of mild forms of autism took place, as these individuals did not require any hospitalization.

For the newly published study, researchers collected data on almost 700,000 children born in Denmark from 1980 through 1991. Researchers kept track of these children and their medical history, from birth until autism was diagnosed, and through to the year 2011. Almost 4,000 children from that group were diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. The majority were diagnosed after 1995, after changes in the diagnostic criteria and inclusion of outpatient diagnoses occurred.

Although the recent study found that a significant factor in the increase in diagnosis is due to alterations in diagnostic criteria, there are still other factors being examined. Scientists state that a combination of genetic mutations, as well as environmental factors, play a role in the development of the disorder, although they have not pinned down a specific cause. More research on this incredibly complex disorder needs to take place in order to make further conclusions.

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