Autism Statistics Rising
> 10/12/2009 9:36:11 AM

Nearly all nationwide news outlets carried the claim that more than 1% of American children may now be diagnosed with one or more Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) - and that this number is a 60% increase over previous estimates. The release preceded an upcoming, comprehensive report from the Department of Health and Human Services, and its promoters hope to stimulate both public interest and private charity.

The news and following media campaign began with a large, if imprecise, study in which 1 in 91 3-to-17-year-old children were said to have been diagnosed with an autistic disorder. That recent survey involved more than 78,000 American parents who answered questions about their children by phone, and 11 of every 1,000 reported that one or more of their kids had been confirmed autistic. The study's release will not settle any current debates within the field, but the ensuing rush should refocus attention (and crucial healthcare dollars) on a challenging family of disorders whose advocates aim for a greater share of the government's generosity.

Their efforts look to have paid off so far. Following the press release, three United States Congressmen offered two separate but similar federal bills designed to "help millions of American families" to find the most effective forms of care and manage the financial burdens of supporting an autistic child. Proposed legislative changes include increasing federal funds for research projects, conducting a comprehensive adult prevalence study, and establishing a legal mandate stating that insurance plans must cover ASD treatments.

The polling methods used in the study itself resist close analysis because parental testimony was the only evidence considered. Most importantly, the study can't quite answer the inevitable question: has the rate of ASDs increased, or have our technologies and sentiments grown more sensitive to their presence? A surprising 40% of the children who had, at some point, received positive diagnoses no longer officially suffered from the disorders at the time their parents were interviewed. This number throws the efficiency of current diagnostic standards into serious doubt. Even if our newest methods can more accurately identify the disorders, their disappointing accuracy rates remind us that ASDs remain extremely elusive and that they're often diagnosed incorrectly.

Maybe that issue doesn't matter as much as it seems to. This study's responses emphasize the need for a greater understanding of autism derived from an expanded research database and a stronger web of supportive care for the families of autistic individuals who can't support themselves. These are fairly universal sentiments no matter where one ranks ASDs on the national priority scale. The purpose of the study and subsequent report was to stir up conversation, and it has done that. We can only hope that the cause of autism research and treatment takes net gains from the subsequent media storm.

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