Is the Rate of Autism Really Rising?

numbersThe rate of autism has skyrocketed over the last few decades, according to many doctors and media reports. The numbers of children diagnosed with autism has risen steadily, and is projected to continue rising. There have been many theories, but no one really knows for sure why these numbers are growing with each generation. Genetics, environmental toxins, and vaccines are just a few of the possible causes that have been explored, but some recent studies suggest the rising rates may be due to changes in the diagnostic criteria for autism.

A recent study published in JAMA Pediatrics found that the rise in autism diagnoses amongst Danish children could be attributed to changes in the diagnostic criteria for the disorder. Prior to the 1960’s, autism was linked to schizophrenia, and was a rare diagnosis generally found only in patients committed to institutions. In 1994, Denmark expanded the list of symptoms included in the autism spectrum, and in 1995 the country began tracking outpatient diagnoses, leading to a significant rise in autism diagnosis. An examination of the health records of 668,000 children born in Denmark between 1980 through 1991 found that 60% of the increase in autism diagnoses could be attributed to these changes.

A recent CDC report in the United State reported similar findings. The study tracked the differences in autism diagnoses between states, and found that increased diagnoses were directly linked to heightened awareness, school screenings, and access to services. For example, the autism rate in in Alabama was 1 in 175, compared to 1 in 45 in New Jersey. According to Lisa Schulman, director of infant and toddler services at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine’s Children’s Evaluation and Rehabilitation Center in New York City,

“[The difference among states] is not because there’s something going on in the drinking water in New Jersey and that kids in Alabama are spared this environmental exposure. It’s access to systems and institutions that diagnose and evaluate.”

What does this mean for the thousands of children diagnosed with autism who will be ageing out of the system over the coming years? Whether their diagnoses were based on increased diagnostic criteria or other factors, the fact remains that these individuals are still going to need significant support in order to live productive, independent lives, and the current state of services in the United States is “woefully inadequate,” according to Angela Lello, director of housing and community living at Autism Speaks. She says,

“There are lots of long waiting lists. In some states, it can take as long as ten years to gain access to [these support] services.”

President Obama signed the Autism CARES act in 2014, appropriating $1.3 billion over five years to fund autism research and detect gaps in support for children and adults with autism. This is a good start, but will not likely be enough for the many individuals who will need services during the coming years. Whether the increase in autism is due to new diagnostic criteria, or to other factors, there are still many people who are going to need support.

References:
Forbes :Majority Of Autism Increase Due To Diagnostic Changes, Finds New Study
Time: This May Explain the Rise in Autism Diagnoses
National Geographic: “Increase” in Childhood Autism No Cause for Alarm: Experts