Autism diagnosis rates are up, and while some people see this as a sign of an "autism epidemic" springing from various causes, researchers at Penn State University offer a less-alarmist hypothesis. They think that the rise in autism diagnosis rates might be a function of "the reclassification of individuals who previously would have been diagnosed with other intellectual disability disorders."
To make this claim, the Penn State scientists studied 11 years' worth of data about special education enrollments. While the researchers did indeed see a rise in autism in special-ed classes between 2000-2010, they also noted a decrease in numbers of children with other intellectual disabilities that often present with autism. One reason for this seems to be that under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), kids can only be classified under one diagnostic category. In many cases, this means that autism spectrum disorder becomes a catch-all diagnosis for other IDEA categories like intellectual disability, emotional disturbance, other health impairment, and specific learning disabilities.
So, is it a bad thing that more kids are getting diagnosed with autism? I don't think so. In fact, to my mind, more diagnoses are a very good thing. Too often there are state-funded programs in place to help kids on the spectrum, but kids with other intellectual disabilities are often left out of these programs. I've known parents whose children had many autism signs, but until they got an official diagnosis, the kids weren't eligible to receive beneficial autism services. Once they got the diagnosis, however, it only helped them. It allowed them a better, more individually focused education and a clearer rubric for understanding things like speech delays, sensory challenges, and behavioral issues. With all that in mind, although I too find the rising prevalence of autism surprising, I'm extremely grateful that more and more kids are getting the help they need.
Image "Diagnostic form with diagnosis Autism spectrum and pills" via Shutterstock