OPINION | Rachel Burr Gerrard
STAT NEWS – Is there an autism epidemic? No. The increase in the autism rate recently reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention represent an autism diagnosis epidemic. [emphasis added.]
Writing in the weekly journal MMWR, CDC researchers reported that autism rates in the United States increased from 1 in 150 children in 2000 to 1 in 54 in 2016, and the rate now stands at 1 in 44 children.
“As autism diagnoses increased, diagnoses of other learning disabilities decreased. More diagnoses and more patient advocacy led to more money dedicated to autism therapy and research, which in turn led to even more diagnoses. This trend has continued today as the number of psychiatric beds continues to decrease and parent advocacy groups successfully lobby to raise billions for autism research.”
Some argue that autism’s prevalence is rising because of environmental causes like vaccines. There is no evidence, though, for that explanation.
Others argue that the rate is increasing because of the rising age of parents, especially fathers. This doesn’t explain the whole story, however, as increased paternal age accounts for only about 3% of the increase.
I believe that the rise in the autism rate is largely social, not biological.
It’s not that more children are developing symptoms of autism, but multifaceted sociological and political factors are increasing the diagnoses and documentation of this condition condition over other developmental diagnoses.
The first of these factors was the rise of the deinstitutionalization movement. Starting in the 1960s, parent groups such as the National Association of Retarded Children advocated for the deinstitutionalization and normalization of children diagnosed with what was then called mental retardation.
(The phrase “mental retardation” is offensive today, but I use it here because it was the technical diagnosis at the time). These parent groups partnered with therapists to develop new treatments for children that took place outside of institutions.
In his book “The Autism Matrix,” sociologist Gil Eyal explained that a diagnosis of autism fit the message of the deinstitutionalization movement better than mental retardation because the public believed that children with autism lagged behind only in some areas and could improve with behavioral therapies … READ MORE.
Rachel Burr Gerrard is a first-year medical student at the University of Pennsylvania. This essay stems from research she conducted for a master’s degree in philosophy from the University of Cambridge’s Health, Medicine and Society program.