Feature

Autism: Why rates are rising

Autism rates continue to soar.

Autism rates continue to soar, said Deborah Kotz in The Boston Globe. The latest findings, released last week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, show a 30 percent increase in diagnoses over the past four years, with one in 68 U.S. children now suffering from some form of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), from mild impairment in social functioning to severe withdrawal. In 2000, an estimated one in 150 children was considered autistic, while in 2010, it was one in 110. Many parents are understandably alarmed by the apparent autism epidemic, said Jessica Grose in Slate.com, but the rise in incidence may be misleading. Doctors who treat autism say it simply doesn’t make sense that white children are 30 percent more likely to be diagnosed than black children, or that Alabama has an autism rate of one in 175 while New Jersey has one in 45. These variations suggest that the overall higher incidence is at least partly the result of “raised awareness” of autism in middle-class communities.

With more awareness, there are more diagnoses, said Alice G. Walton in Forbes.com. The definitions of ASD are “more encompassing than they were in the past,” and doctors are diagnosing it in children who would have received a different diagnosis, or no diagnosis, years ago. In other words, “the data may not indicate that autism prevalence has actually jumped that much.” There are also no accepted medical tests for ASD, said Mike Stobbe in the Associated Press, meaning “diagnosis is not an exact science” and is based solely on “judgments about a child’s behavior.” But even as awareness grows, researchers still can’t rule out “some actual increases” in the number of cases as well.

One thing is abundantly clear, said Sam Wang in The New York Times. Vaccines do not cause autism. In fact, growing scientific evidence strongly suggests there are hundreds of autism-risk genes that can get switched on while the baby is still in the womb and its brain is still developing. Severe air pollution is one risk factor; so is being born 9 or more weeks prematurely. Hugely stressful events during pregnancy, such as moving to a new country or getting caught in a hurricane zone, also raise the risk. So as prospective parents grapple with the rise in diagnoses, one bit of old folk wisdom applies: “Reduce stresses to the mother.”

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