Perspectives on Autism "Epidemic"
> 6/13/2007 2:07:02 PM

As we've previously reported here as well as on our sister site, The Psychology of Education, the medical world and the general population have become increasingly aware of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) among us due to repeated mentions in the news and an exponential increase in diagnoses over the past decade. The question posed now: is there truly an autism epidemic? Has the disease multiplied, and do millions more now suffer from it? If so, why? Is the cause genetic, environmental, or some combintation thereof? If not, why the huge increase in numbers?

If the incidence of autism among the general population has truly grown at the same rates as its diagnoses, the trend cannot be simply genetic in nature. Such a development would imply the introduction of some basic functional change applied to millions of people in disparate locations and situations, which was then passed along to their offspring (and genetic changes tend to make themselves known over multiple generations). Most diseases are relatively easy to definitively confirm or deny with blood testing and other physical procedures. The major problem with measuring diagnostic trends and conducting research necessary to gague the validity of concerns over an autism "epidemic" is that the condition presents no biological markers. Assessment and diagnosis proceed on a purely behavioral level.

On the environmental triggers front, several high-profile pharmaceutical lawsuits (nearly 5000 in total) have been filed in recent years claiming that the presence of mercury in the common preservative thimerisol, which is used in childhood vaccines against potentially fatal diseases such as tuberculosis and whooping cough, brought about an autism diagnosis in affected children. The use of the substance in childhood vaccines ceased eight years ago, but many believe it to be responsible for ASD diagnoses in their children. No major verdict has ever fallen in the plaintiffs' favor in this sort of case, largely because none of the many related clinical studies have ever conclusively linked mercury exposure to autism diagnoses. As much as many parents want to believe that this element is the culprit and that its manufacturers, due to some form of conspiracy, will never be held accountable for the damage they caused, there is no agreed-upon link between autism and mercury. On the other hand, thimerisol's discontinuation is not a bad thing, as mercury poisoning is a very real threat.

The most reasonable explanation, supported by research and the testimony of clinical experts, is that the methods and standards we use to define autism have expanded, allowing for more children to fall within the spectrum. This more nebulous definition of the disorder may also lead to less specific treatments for kids whose conditions exist at different points along the spectrum. It may also be a good thing, as more kids will qualify for assistance and we will need to make appropriate changes in the education system in order to accomadate them. Some schools have already adapted in a largely improvisational way, attempting to help their autistic students find company with their peers. Many of their behaviors still make them difficult to deal with in traditional school settings, but as our knowledge of autism expands, more children will begin to appreciate the problems encountered by their autistic peers. Are we in the midst of an autsim "epidemic?" We have no means by which to truly answer that question. While the percentage of ADS individuals in our society is not likely to increase, the level of attention paid to them certainly will, which can only be a good thing.

No comments yet.

Post Your Comments

Post a comment
Email Address:
Verification Code:
Input the 8 characters you see above:


Drug Abuse
Sexual Addiction
Eating Disorders
Alzheimer's Disease

About TOL | Contact Us | Defining Behavioral Fitness | For Healthcare Professionals | Links | Privacy Policy