Is Autism An Epidemic?

Throughout the past 15-20 years, we have seen a steady rise and increase in autism prevalence rates.  As these rates have increased, news articles, politicians, and talking heads have referred to the “autism epidemic.”  This has caused panic and concern for parents, pediatricians, and schools – while failing to fully explain and understand why the rates have increased, and what we can do about it. To start, an epidemic implies infectious diseases.  Since autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is not something that can be transmitted or spread to others, it cannot be considered an epidemic.

We do know that some things have changed, however, in our understanding of ASD, and the prevalence rates.  For one, the criteria has changed.  Subtleties and nuances are better understood and captured by professionals, and the 2013 change to the DSM-5, the handbook of psychiatric disorders, eliminated separate spectrum diagnoses, such as Asperger’s Syndrome and the “catch-all” diagnosis, PDD-NOS.  Individuals along the spectrum are better identified, younger in age, and later in life.  No longer considered a childhood disorder, we are able to recognize the adult presentation of ASD as well.

We also know what doesn’t cause autism.  Despite clear evidence and rigorous study, the misconception still exists that somehow vaccines are related to autism.  This is inaccurate, and dangerous, contributing now to rising rates of previously eradicated diseases, like measles, and spreading risk to immune compromised and medically fragile children in the community.  Autism cannot be an epidemic, but measles, whooping cough, and other life-threatening diseases can be.

Genetics are also at play in the rising rates of ASD.  Those with moderate and high functioning ASD grow up, and apply the strengths that come with their diagnosis to their adult lives.  For many, this grows their social world, and may include relationships and children.  For children born to an adult with ASD, there is a higher likelihood of the child being diagnosed with ASD as well.  Since acceptance has increased with the prevalence rates, more opportunities and greater quality of life is leading to reproduction – and what better family for a child with ASD to be born into, then one who already understands and supports the strengths of ASD!

That isn’t to say that more work can’t be done.  Adults continue to be dramatically under-served in terms of treatments and supports for ASD.  We also know that minorities and lower SES populations tend to receive later diagnoses, and fewer interventions.  We need to increase research, funding, and services as the need has increased, and our understanding and knowledge has increased.

Autism’s prevalence rates have increased, but what that likely means is that the rates are now just better understood, and more accurate.  The individuals who were previously misdiagnosed and misunderstood are more accurately represented, now.  The individuals who need support and intervention include the very young, who benefit most dramatically from early intervention, but also adults, who have “fallen off the service cliff” upon graduation from high school.  For more information on accurate diagnosis and supports for ASD, contact us.  We can help!