Why Is Autism So Common Now?

Autism RibbonIn 1980, the rate of autism was typically quoted as 4 in 10,000. The most recent rate reported is 1 in 50. While it is difficult to get a precise estimate, it’s abundantly clear that rates of autism have increased dramatically since 1980 – and in fact over the last decade. So what has changed?

There are a number of factors that have brought the startling levels of autism to our attention. These include:

Better Awareness: In 1980, autism was first introduced as a separate diagnostic category in the third addition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Prior to that time, clinicians using the DSM applied other categories such as childhood schizophrenia. Since 1980, there has been extraordinary growth in awareness – both for professionals and parents alike. This is particularly so over the past decade. Advocacy groups have done an admirable job of helping us understand what autism is (and isn’t). Pediatricians now screen for early warning signs – as do parents. These actions have all led to a much greater awareness of the symptoms of autism which undoubtedly translates in more proper diagnoses being made. In addition, the increased awareness has permitted older kids to be diagnosed more properly when the signs earlier in life were not recognized as autism.

Expansion Of The Symptoms: In parallel with efforts to increase awareness, diagnostic changes that recognized autism as a spectrum – now referred to as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) – helped capture the wide range of symptoms that go beyond “classic” autism. Including a much broader representation of social, communicative, and repetitive/stereotyped behaviors certainly helped recognize the disorder in many youth who would not have been diagnosed in past years. Of course, there is debate about how the changes in the upcoming DSM-5 may result in a reduction in the rate of diagnosed ASD in the future. But up until now, recognizing the variation in symptoms that can characterize ASD has certainly been a factor in understanding how common autism really is.

Changes In Etiological Factors: Less understood is the role of new causative factors that increase risk for ASD. Much attention is being given to a large number of potential environmental contributors. There is the suggestion that specific genetic mutations that may be linked to autism – and associated with paternal age – are more common in the population because of average increases in paternal age over the last few decades. Much of this work, though, is work in progress, as it is believed that ASD typically results from the combination of a number of environmental and genetic risk factors. But many researchers operate under the assumption that there are both environmental and genetic risk factors that may be increasing in the population, though they remain elusive.

So, since 1980, what we have learned? We know now that autism is very common, is best thought of as a spectrum that includes substantial variation in how symptoms are expressed, and may be influenced by increasing levels of risk factors that are not well understood at this time. For all these reasons, it is critical that we keep researching the causes of autism, and continue to promote awareness of the early signs and symptoms in order to support early diagnosis and intervention.

Image: Autism Awareness Ribbon via Shutterstock

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  1. by Amanda Howery-Thompson

    On April 1, 2013 at 7:45 pm

    So basically, you’re saying we know nothing more than what we knew before. My son Dakota is 11, and was diagnosed with Asperger’s Disorder at the age of 3, his father was Diagnosed with the same At age 32. We often thought of his father as rude, or just unsocial, it was not until Dakota was diagnosed that his father was diagnosed with the same. So clearly there is some sort of genetic tie. But, there is no reason, there is no cure, and there is nothing to explain it…

  2. by WillBest

    On April 1, 2013 at 8:52 pm

    I don’t believe 196 out of 10,000 were hiding in other diseases or just being missed back in 1980s.

    There has been a very real increase in the last 30 years. Too much to just be a changing definition and better awareness.

  3. [...] My intention is not to go into all the reasons why this is so; and I’m certainly no expert, but you can read about the theories here. [...]

  4. by Kimberly Scanlon

    On April 4, 2013 at 11:44 pm

    Thanks in large part to the organization Autism Speaks, we now know more about Autism, then we ever have. With the increased awareness, parents struggling with this diagnosis have more resources and support. However, there are still so many questions left unanswered, so many questionable treatment methods, so many ifs, and so much information overload that I’m sure it’s even more confusing than ever.

  5. by Lauren

    On April 23, 2013 at 9:45 am

    I think another HUGE factor is the introduction to GMOs into our diets. I personally know 3 people who have kids on the autism spectrum and have cut out dairy, grains and GMO filled processed foods and can’t believe the diffence. One going from non verbal, no eye contact to forming short sentences in just weeks. And he makes eye contact now!

    GMOs were only introduced in the 80s. The foods we eat now are no longer foods our bodies recognize. They are “food like” products at best. And they greatly effect us. And they do in fact alter our DNA and the DNA of our unborn children.

  6. by Dorota

    On April 23, 2013 at 10:20 am

    Lauren – I couldn’t agree more. GMOs are not without blame.

  7. by Tanya

    On April 23, 2013 at 10:42 am

    What about in vitro fertilization? Why is this not on the list. Paternal age matters but women, not necessarily older women, who have babies with scientific help also have a higher rate of children born with autism and other disorders. Maybe society needs to realize some members are not meant to reproduce.

  8. by Katerina

    On April 23, 2013 at 10:58 am

    How come there’s no mention of inocculation? The huge surge of vaccines containing mercury and aluminium is often mentioned in this respect.

  9. by Juli

    On April 23, 2013 at 11:22 am

    Lauren is correct. Gmo’s and the poor over processed American diet in general is a a large contributing factor. The reason for that is the fact that we have brain receptors in our gut. So when we eat a poor diet and even worse one filled with deadly pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, and heavy metals we inundate our body with toxins. These combined with sugars feeds unfriendly gut flora (yeast/candida). These living organisms are symbiotic, and their excretions are additionally toxic causing both diarrhea or constipation in its human host( depending if it colinates the small or large intestine, malabsorption, and malnutrition in its host. What’s worse they burough into the wall of the intestine causing small tares that allow food and fecal matter to in very small amounts to poison and cause disease in the body, even further over taxing the body AND brain with toxins. This is where autism comes into play, and why your friends children, and other children including mine have improved when their diets are changed and even more so if good bacteria is given to recolinize the gut with friendly flora as well as good herbs and oils to kill off the bad.
    Google Leaky gut syndrome, autism and candida, Jenny Mcarthy and how she cured her son of autism.

  10. by Juli

    On April 23, 2013 at 11:30 am

    Invitro and vaccination damage are REAL issues…anything that adds toxins to the body and lessens the health of the gut/ brain are contributing factors to this surge in autism. As well as many other illnesses, auto immune disorders, disease in general! Dis – Ease means the body is not at ease and functioning as it was meant to. I am not saying everything is connected to the gut, but much more than we realize :(

  11. by Aaron

    On April 23, 2013 at 11:38 am

    Dear paranoid moms: It’s not the food, it’s not vaccines.

    It’s genetic, and the way ASD is diagnosed has changed.

    Paternal and Maternal age are very important factors. I advise you to investigate the rates of ASD in children whose parents are under 25 years of age, and then compare those results to children whose parents are over 40. Then tie the trend of having children later in life to the increase in prevalence of ASD.

  12. by Juli

    On April 23, 2013 at 11:40 am

    Invitro and vaccination damage are REAL issues! Any thing that taxes an already depleted gut/ brain and body causes illness, dis order, and Dis – Ease. And it doesn’t mean a person shouldn’t have children it just means we need to be educated on how to make ours and our children’s body whole again after multiple generations of poor gut health.
    Google GAPS diet.

  13. by Juli

    On April 23, 2013 at 11:48 am

    I was 20 when I had my son, btw. And I’m not saying that there are genetic precursors to this disorder there are, but a child with autism in his “old” family tree doesn’t necessarily end up in the spectrum or all children with it in their families would end up with it! But environmental factors “activate” the genetic weaknesses.
    The proof is in the pudding. Children are healing when they’re gut is healed, period.

  14. by Dana

    On April 23, 2013 at 12:03 pm

    GMOs are the cause! Boycott Monsanto

  15. by Boom

    On April 23, 2013 at 12:25 pm

    Aaron, do us all a favor and go crawl back under the rock you came out of. Vaccines, GMO’s, mitochondrial DNA, parental age and environmental factors ALL make it happen. That is all.

  16. by Leona Shemza

    On April 23, 2013 at 12:55 pm

    I so agree with others here the causes most certainly are GMO related, Monsanto has a long history of introducing chemicals that kill and the fact that are so many western diseases on the rise, like autism & fibromyalgia the list goes on and on. I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia 2 years ago 2 months ago I cut out all wheat and processed foods and my symptoms have improved over 90%! And others I am reading about have had the same results. I would bet my life I am right – our food supply is so tainted with chemicals by the time the FDA makes the connection it will be too late for all of us. I hope I am wrong!

  17. by lynne

    On April 23, 2013 at 12:56 pm

    In 2006, according to the CDC it was 1 in 110 children had ASD – so now in 2013 it is 1 in 50 – so I think your “Better Awareness” and “Expansion of Symptions” can be thrown out the window -> since those two factors happened in the 80′s and 90′s.

  18. by meg

    On April 24, 2013 at 8:10 am

    There is NO link to vaccinations and autism I find that theory abaolutely foolish. You would rather see a child die from measles complications or the flu than have a somewhat controlable, often misdiagnosed disorder?

  19. by Cindy Schaeffer

    On April 24, 2013 at 10:45 am

    I have been dealing with Autism personally and professionally since 1989. The truth in your article is that we are now more aware and noting symptoms in children earlier. We still have NO idea what causes autism we just have to help the best we can. Early diagnosis, overcoming parental denial, and early intervention is crucial. These infants/toddlers need speech therapy, physical therapy and occupational therapy – preferably under one roof as early as possible. As a parent if you think there’s a delay and your pediatrician does not – get a second opinion!

  20. by Dana

    On April 24, 2013 at 10:56 am

    wow Meg! You watch too much TV! You really need to do better research. I could send you a million links from scientists as well as Drs. who claim the vaccines do not prohibit disease and do cause many adverse effects but I am not here to wake you out of sheepdome. I stated earlier that GMOs are a cause of increase but I came back to add heavy metal poisoning added to poor diet causes a lack in ability for the body to detox itself. I came across this link that shows the almost exact similarity of Mercury poisoning and Autism symptoms. Scroll down to the chart if you have no time to read text and then make a somewhat informed decision before spewing mindless drone rhetoric. http://www.autismtruth.org/Archived/60minutes_112004.html

  21. by Me

    On April 25, 2013 at 2:35 am

    Personally I just think it’s over diagnosed. Many of these cases may be real, but I think often it’s just a fad diagnosis, a “go to” diagnosis when nothing else fits. Children develop at different rates, I’m tired of being pushed to test my youngest for it when there’s nothing wrong with her, other than not speaking words, and she’s barely 2. There’s not even any set diagnostic criteria, so it’s basically always a judgement call… Again, raising suspicion in my mind of over diagnosis being a contributor to the rising rates.

  22. by Annes

    On April 28, 2013 at 3:59 pm

    I am a teacher, and each year I have had autistic students in my regular education classroom. First: autism is not the death sentence that some commenters seem to think it is. Autistic kids are quirky, funny and often extremely intelligent in one particular domain, and also extremely socially awkward in other ways. As an educator, I know it as soon as I see it,. Since I began teaching (2005), each year there are more and more. Where there was once just one in an entire grade level, now I have one in each class, which bares out the increase in statistics. Usually when I meet the parents, I know exactly where it came from, because one of the parents usually shows symptoms as well. Yes, parents are older these days, but the kids I have had who are autistic don’t all have old parents. In all honesty, to suggest that these kids suffer on a daily basis because of their food is completely misguided. These kids could not change who they are no matter what may be tried. I have seen parents attempt to change diets, swear it works, but we see no difference, because they are who they are. I have friends who have not vaccinated their children, only to have their kids get so sick that they later regretted making such a decision when they saw them suffer so needlessly. I honestly love working with kids with autism, and I can assure you that they have about as munch control over their condition as you do.

  23. by beth

    On April 29, 2013 at 10:31 am

    OK let’s get this straight getting some shots are NOT TO BLAME … I know several parents who DID NOT vaccinated there children who HAVE AUTISM. So how do you figure that’s to blame. Another thing I DO believe it’s all the GMO crap in are food now. Also pesticides in fruits and veggies. There is so much crap in are food specially processed foods. I also think it’s genetic. Everything is genetic. I also agree it’s NOT a death sentence. Autistic kids are very bright and smart. I’m so glad we are embracing Autism. It’s the future and will always be. Just like learning disorders. I’m dyslexic and in the early 80′s I was catergized as stupid and non smart. I was put in the “special education” classes. And basically told I would not amount to much. My mom thought different, got some options. I EXCELLED IN HIGH SCHOOL. Computers were my thing. And today I’m a 35 year old mom to 3 great kids, who runs her own successful business. I would love to throw this in all the teachers who said I was stupid and lazy. :) NO CHILD SHOULD EVER BE LEFT BEHIND.

  24. by Jenny

    On April 29, 2013 at 4:00 pm

    (High school educator for 14 years, daughter of special education preschool director) The increase is in large part due to over-diagnosis. Parents with children who do not perform or do not turn out to be as smart as they believe their children to be look for excuses and something to blame. School systems are too litigation-shy to do anything about it. Parents and administrators do those children who really are autistic a disservice. True autism, as one earlier comment mentions, cannot be changed through nutritional changes or any other heroics. It cannot be cured as some believe. (Eh-hem, Jenny McCarthy…He had it – oh wait, now he doesn’t!)I hope the DSM-5 does decrease the numbers and allow special education resources and dollars to be focused on those who really need it.

  25. by Red

    On April 30, 2013 at 10:26 am

    I learned more from the comment section. Then I did from the actual article…

  26. by Provider

    On April 30, 2013 at 11:33 am

    The information here is somewhat lacking and/or incorrect. Most of these statistics don’t make sense truly unless you are a MH provider. What really has hsppened thanks to insurances, DSMs, Medicare/ Medicaid have changed what they will and won’t cover. Forcing providers to dx differently just to make sure children and other pts can get the medication they still need but regulators say they don’t.

    This is especially the case with aspbergers now being dxd differently so that the child will still be treated.

    In short the statistics are severely skewed.

  27. [...] 10 of the 11 samples from children with autism, the researchers found patches of tissue where some layers were missing. In the 11 samples that [...]