Why Is Autism So Common Now?
In 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.
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