When our now 14-year-old son Charlie was diagnosed with autism in 1999, we were told that autism was a rare disorder, occurring in 1 out of 10,000 children — and then, within just a few years, there was talk everywhere of an “epidemic of autism.” Since then, we have found ourselves on a long journey to figure out how best to teach Charlie, help him, ready him for adulthood and for the time when we will not be here to support him. It has seemed both a comfort to know that there are many others like him out there, but also puzzling. We have followed the numerous research studies about autism’s causes, the prevalence rate and possible explanations for an “epidemic.” This latter topic is revised by the Los Angeles Times has begun a four-part series, Unraveling an Epidemic, that started this Sunday, December 11.
Rising Prevalence Rate For Autism in the Past Decade
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that an average of 1 in 110 children are autistic. In New Jersey where we live the prevalence rate is an even higher, 1 in 94 children. The CDC notes that, in the US, the rate can be as high as 1 in 80 and as low as 1 in 240.
Theories have mushroomed about the rise in autism diagnoses and tended to fall into two categories: Some argue that some external, environmental factor — vaccines or something in vaccines, pollution, pesticides — must be the cause for such a dramatic increase in the number of diagnoses. Others make a case for what come to be known as the “better diagnosis” explanation, that our greater understanding about autism and ability to identify and diagnose it in younger and younger children is behind the rising prevalence rate. A 2005 study found that the autism prevalence rate rose at the same time as diagnoses for learning disabilities and mental retardation fell, suggesting that some of those who are receiving an autism diagnosis today would have received a different one in the past.
Just a few months ago, researchers from Yale University and George Washington University found a prevalence rate of 1 in 38 percent children in South Korea. These findings could be used to support both theories as the study found the highest prevalent rate ever, a seeming sign of an “epidemic” — or was that 1 in 38 rate found because of superior and sensitive diagnostic instruments and the expert observations of those undertaking the study, because of better knowledge and understanding?
Research Undermines Studies Into Environmental Causes
The UC Davis M.I.N.D. Institute has undertaken extensive study of possible environmental causes of autism. But every possible “lead” has been undermined by sociological factors:
Irva Hertz-Picciotto, an epidemiologist at UC Davis, suspects that environmental triggers such as exposure to chemicals during pregnancy play a role. In a 2009 study, she started with a tantalizing lead — several autism clusters, mostly in Southern California, that her team had identified from disability and birth records.
But the hot spots could not be linked to chemical plants, waste dumps or any other obvious environmental hazards. Instead, the cases were concentrated in places where parents were highly educated and had easy access to treatment.
Peter Bearman, a sociologist at Columbia University, has demonstrated how such social forces are driving autism rates.
Analyzing state data, he identified a 386-square-mile area centered in West Hollywood that consistently produced three times as many autism cases as would be expected from birth rates.
Affluence helped set the area apart. But delving deeper, Bearman detected a more surprising pattern that existed across the state: Rich or poor, children living near somebody with autism were more likely to have the diagnosis themselves.
Living within 250 meters boosted the chances by 42%, compared to living between 500 and 1,000 meters away.
Bearman sums up the reason for the increase in the autism rate as “people talk” and that, while autism is definitely not contagious, the diagnosis is.
Read more: aspergers, autism, autism epidemic, autism rate, cdc, disability, learning disabilities, mental health, mental retardation, pdd-nos, psychiatry, psychology, special education, special needs
Photo of Charlie by the author
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