Sunday, August 16, 2015

The Autism Epidemic

This week a provocative article regarding autism appeared online and has caused some controversy. In his article “Is There Really an ‘Autism Epidemic’?” writer Cody Fenwick challenges the assertion that autism is increasing at a staggering rate. Although he mentions the statistics usually cited to show that cases of autism have significantly increased in recent years, he proposes that autism is no more prevalent than it ever was. Instead, he believes that different criteria are being used to describe autism, and better diagnosis of autism along with more available resources have led to more people “experiencing ASD symptoms.”

To support his argument, he mentions research aligning with his belief that autism rates have not increased in recent years. Specifically, he cites a single study in Australia regarding the “global burden” of autism spectrum disorders that determined there was no change in American autism rates from 1990-2010 or around the world, for that matter. In reference to increased rates of autism diagnosis, he summarizes a California study that found higher rates of autism diagnosis in regions that offered diagnostic resources. This same study noted that children who moved to regions that offered better diagnostic resources had better chances of receiving a diagnosis of autism. Obviously, this makes sense: parents take their children to experts when they have symptoms that require evaluation and diagnosis. Moreover, some parents move their families closer to these autism experts so that their children can receive the best possible care. This scenario would seem to refute, rather than support, the author’s point that autism is not an epidemic.

In addition, he refers to “significant research”––but never cites the sources––regarding the increased diagnosis of autism. According to this nebulous body of study, the reason why the occurrence of autism seems to be increasing is because people have more access to mental health services, more incentives for having an autism diagnosis, and greater knowledge of autism. Fenwick asserts: “…high rates of ASD are due to more available resources, rather than an increase in people experiencing ASD symptoms.”

If Fenwick had talked to any autism parents, they could tell him that none of these reasons are true. Parents often wait months or even years to get services for their children with autism because there are simply not enough available resources, primarily because the number of children with autism has increased more rapidly than the availability of professionals who work with them. As for the “incentives” of having an autism diagnosis, this is simply ludicrous. Autism parents know that a diagnosis of autism often means discrimination and having to fight insurance companies to provide needed services. Moreover, if a greater knowledge of autism truly exists, there would be no need for autism awareness.

Another argument that Fenwick makes is that autism is simply a reclassification of the diagnosis of intellectual disability. He supports this position by noting that while the diagnosis of autism has increased (yet there is no autism epidemic, according to him), the diagnosis of intellectual disability has decreased. He suggests that many people who would have been labeled as having an intellectual disability are now classified as having autism, noting that the autism spectrum is diverse and has wide criteria for diagnosis. As anyone who studies statistics knows, “Correlation does not imply causation,” and the decline in those with intellectual disabilities has a more likely cause. According to recent statistics, an estimated 92% of pregnancies in which Down syndrome is diagnosed are terminated in abortion. Tragically, these children who would have been diagnosed as having intellectual disability are being eliminated from society before they can be born, and this is more likely the reason for fewer children receiving the intellectual disability diagnosis.

On the other end of the spectrum, he states that many people with high functioning autism probably went undiagnosed in the past. However, my more than thirty years of experience as a teacher tells me this is not true. Autism, even the high functioning version, is not something that could be ignored. The hallmarks of impaired language and social skills and behavior could not simply be swept under the rug. The reason more children are being diagnosed with autism is because autism rates are increasing; it’s that simple.

While Fenwick attempts to make his point that increased diagnosis of ASD does not mean more people have autism than before, he explains that the term “autism epidemic” should be avoided because classifying autism as a disease or plague is “hurtful and demeaning” to people with autism who view the condition as integral to their identity. Whether autism is a disorder, a disability, or a disease, it clearly impacts people’s lives in negative ways, impairing their language and social skills. The term “autism epidemic” is not intended to diminish those who have autism; instead, using this term may help bring attention to the difficulties they face on a daily basis.

Although the author concludes his argument that autism is not an epidemic by stating the “need to avoid making unwarranted claims to gain attention for our cause,” he never explains why he personally views autism as “our cause.” However, he also points out the need for better mental health services and research and even concedes that the current research on autism rates is “not decisive,” noting that there could be an actual increase in cases of ASD.

If, indeed, autism rates are increasing—and I believe they are, based upon my research and experience––attention is needed so that more research is done regarding how to help people with autism to allow them to get better support and services than are currently available. To quibble over the semantics of the term “epidemic” wastes more time that could be spent finding ways to help people with autism. For the record, however, I do believe there is an autism epidemic that if not addressed immediately will overwhelm our medical care, education system, and economic resources. With not enough support systems in place to handle this epidemic, those who need help will suffer. Our children with autism deserve much better.

“For He will rescue you from every trap and protect you from deadly disease.” Psalm 91:3


K. C. Wells said...

Perfectly stated, Pam.

Pam Byrne said...

Thanks, K.C.! Hope you all are doing well.