Autism

Is There an Autism Epidemic?

| by Kev Leitch

A couple of slap dash blog pieces appeared today both on the same subject – the so called autism epidemic. First off is Harold who writes about a series of interviews with David Kirby. David says:

It’s crazy that in this debate, we’re still debating whether autism numbers are actually going up or not, which is insanity to me. It’s people desperately clinging to this belief that autism is genetic, that it’s always been with us at this rate, that we’re just better at counting it, better at diagnosing it.

Harold claims David has ‘hit the nail on the head’ with this quote. I disagree with Harold and I disagree with David. Its far from insanity to examine a perfectly valid hypothesis. More later.

Anne Dachel at the Age of Autism writes:

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Why do I personally know so many young people with severe autism, whose symptoms can’t be ignored?  How could we have just ignored these people in the past?  Where are those misdiagnosed adults with classic autism—-those with the same symptoms we see in so many children today?

I’m not talking about [Kristina] Chew’s autistic neighbor who was able to have a conversation with her, or [Paul] Offit’s people who are kind of ‘quirky.’  I mean adults who can’t talk, those in diapers, people who scream for hours and pound hours in walls and who constantly rock back and forth.

Dachel goes on to list several news reports which question the idea of there not being some kind of an epidemic. I disagree with her view and I disagree with the way she has reached her view.

Both Dachel and Harold (and David Kirby come to that) are claiming that epidemiology can be ursurped by individual experience – Dachel’s individual experience with ‘so many young people’ and David’s individual experience with the idea that people are desperately clinging on to some sort of belief in a genetic form of autism.

Now, casting aside the fact that the some of the forms of autism that we know about (Rett Syndrome etc) are solely genetic we have to – as we do with all forms of science, cast aside personal anecdote when making sweeping statements about a very large group of people. What we need to do instead is look at the science. So what does the science say?

Nothing. As far as I can see no firm case has been made that there either is or is not an autism epidemic. Why? Because the science hasn’t been done. It is maybe worth noting that it is the firm opinion of autism experts that a large part of any possible rise is due to:

a) Better diagnostic tools

b) More places at which to recieve a diagnosis

c) More awareness amongst clinicians of autism

d) Earlier diagnosis

e) Diagnostic substitution

f) Widening of diagnostic criteria

Experts such as Eric Fombonne, Roy Richard Grinker and Simon Baron-Cohen have all spoken about these ideas at length. However, that doesn’t make them right. There still seems to be no hard and fast science that says there is an autism epidemic or not.