There is No Autism Epidemic

How we talk about disability matters. For example, I have often criticized Autism Speaks and anti-vax groups (not the same – AS is not AntiVax, they have other problems) for the way they talk about autism as a disease needing a cure. I assure you, my autistic friends are not diseased. Moreover, it’s absolutely clear that autism rates – in terms of numbers of diagnoses – are skyrocketing. The question is why. Antivax folks say it’s because of vaccinations (N.B. It’s not). Autism Speaks says, I believe, that they don’t know why the “epidemic” is happening and they need to study it and stop it.

Meanwhile, the counter-argument is that there is no autism epidemic, we are just diagnosing it more accurately and have expanded the definitions.

Here’s a new large-scale study from Sweden. It took ten years and nearly 20,000 twins (190 with autism) and all children in Sweden (over a million, 4000 with autism) and concluded this:

The prevalence of the autism symptom phenotype has remained stable in children in Sweden while the official prevalence for registered, clinically diagnosed, autism spectrum disorder has increased substantially. This suggests that administrative changes, affecting the registered prevalence, rather than secular factors affecting the pathogenesis, are important for the increase in reported prevalence of autism spectrum disorder.

We are diagnosis autism differently as our understanding of the neurological condition has developed. Many, many, more people are being diagnosed as on the spectrum, and this is a good thing, as it enables neurotypical society to become more accepting and more inclusive of a wider range of behaviors. For autistic people who benefit from various kinds of therapies, and some certainly do (this is a controversial issue I’ll save for another post), a diagnosis enables a therapist to work with them correctly.

So let me say it again:

1) More accurate diagnosis of autism is a good thing.
2) There is no autism epidemic

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