If there is no autism epidemic, why do the statistics keep climbing?

The prevalence of autism has risen steadily since researchers started tracking the condition in 2000.

Some people refer to the steady increase in cases as an “autism epidemic.” The condition seems to be more widespread, affecting more families every year. However, experts believe that no more children develop autism today than they did 50 years ago. Instead, they say the increase in cases is due to changes in diagnostic criteria and heightened awareness of the condition.

At Therapeutic Pathways, we utilize the latest scientific research in our individualized treatment plans for children, adolescents, and adults. These treatment plans are based on in-depth assessments and goal-planning. If you are looking for a treatment plan for your child or family member with autism, contact Therapeutic Pathways for more information on each of our programs.

History of Diagnosing Autism

Child psychiatrist Leo Kanner first used the word “autism” in 1943 to describe children with social and emotional difficulties. The exact phrase he used was “infantile autism” because he noticed that symptoms appeared very early on in a child’s life, unlike other mental illnesses he was familiar with. Kanner identified symptoms of “delayed echolalia,” and an “anxiously obsessive desire for the maintenance of sameness.” 

In Kanner’s day, autism was seen as a psychiatric condition, not developmental. In the 1960s and 1970s, researchers discovered that autism is grounded in and affects brain development. Finally, in 1980, autism was included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) for the first time as its own diagnosis. This was a big step in normalizing and increasing awareness of autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Prior versions of the DSM left much open to interpretation. Based on their observances, one doctor might have diagnosed a child with autism and another may have not, even if the children had the same symptoms. That’s one reason why the prevalence of autism cases appears much lower than it is today.

The DSM reflected another shift in research and discovery in 1987. That year, the DSM was revised to include pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS) - the first time autism was considered a disorder on a “spectrum.” This was another milestone in diagnosing the condition, as experts realized that autism is not one condition, but many conditions with a range of symptoms of severity. 

It’s important to note that the word “spectrum” did not appear in the DSM until 1994 when the fourth version of the manual was published. This version also included Asperger syndrome.

Prevalence of Autism

The first studies on the prevalence of autism were conducted by researchers in Europe and the United States in the 1960s and 1970s. Their studies estimated that two to four children out of 10,000 had autism. Fast forward to 2002, and those estimates increased to six to seven children per 1,000 with autism.

Fast forward once more to March 2020. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published data from their Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring (ADDM) Network, reporting that about one in every 54 children has autism.

There is a link between awareness of autism and the prevalence of cases, which has been unfairly coined as an “autism epidemic.” Combined with government programs and federal regulations preventing employers from discriminating against applicants based on their mental abilities, autism awareness has helped many people with ASD get jobs, receive better healthcare, and live more satisfying lives.

Awareness also helps faculty and staff in schools recognize the symptoms of autism, which could lead to a diagnosis. Another reason why the number of autism cases appears to have increased over the years is due to the decrease in misdiagnoses of intellectual disabilities.

Autism Treatment at Therapeutic Pathways

Thankfully, attitudes and treatment options for individuals with autism have changed drastically over the years. The programs and opportunities today are very different than several decades ago when, sadly, many individuals with autism were institutionalized. Greater awareness of this condition has helped many understand that people with autism are capable of much more than was previously considered.

At Therapeutic Pathways, our goal is to give your child or family member with autism the skills they need to live satisfying, independent lives. We teach them how to communicate their desires, thoughts, and feelings; we show them how to interact with others and more effectively balance their moods. Our approach focuses on the family as well as the individual with autism, as we provide training resources for parents so they can navigate daily challenges with patience and understanding. You can rest assured there is no autism epidemic, just more autism awareness.

If you are seeking a comprehensive evidence-based autism treatment plan for your child or family member, contact Therapeutic Pathways today.