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December 16, 2011 at 5:04 PMComments: 2 Faves: 0

The Great Autism Debate - Epidemic or Detection Boom?

By Erin Froehlich More Blogs by This AuthorFrom the The Well Mind Blog Series

Redefining Autism

Scientific understanding around autism has seen great changes in the span of just 50 years. 

Until very recently, only the most severe and dramatic cases of autism – the classic image of the mute kid rocking in a corner – were diagnosed. Today, the span of autism is much wider.

Doctors now look at autism as a spectrum disorder. There are still those cases of kids with severe mental disability, but alongside them, under the autism subcategory of Asperger’s Syndrome, there are autistic kids that, while socially awkward, are not only functioning – they’re brilliant.

It’s a dramatic change in the way we understand autism, and it’s one the medical community is trying very hard to make us aware of.  Understandably with such a change in definition, parents of these higher -functioning autistic children need to be prepared before they’ll accept that their child, which is okay, a little odd, but otherwise doing pretty well, could be autistic.

You’ll probably have seen commercials for “Autism Speaks” dispelling the old notions and encouraging concerned parents to look into it – “it’s more common than you think!

And it’s very true.

In fact, today’s estimates by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that 1% of children, 1 in every 100, will fall on the autism spectrum - 20 times the estimates given just 30 years ago in 1980!

So...What Happened?!

“So… what happened?!” people understandably wonder.

It’s a question that the experts are trying desperately to answer and recently an article was published from the Los Angles Times on this very subject.

Is it an epidemic? Is the cause in this jump environmental – BPA, lead, mercury, growth hormones? Or is it just that we’ve become better at detecting the condition in less severely afflicted children?

Those on the environmental side need only pick up a paper to find some new horrible effect the chemicals in our food, water, cups, plates, and children’s toys can have on their health.

Still, those on the detection side have a solid case of their own – with a wider spectrum of symptoms and symptom severities being included, and with all the efforts and awareness campaigns working to educate, of course we’re going to see more children being diagnosed!

There are heated arguments from both sides which feel passionately one way or the other, and countless studies supporting them both. And yet, scientists are still, are not entirely sure what is even happening with autistic children.

For Better or for Worse?

And then there is the diagnoses very beneficiality that is being debated.

For some it’s the answer they’ve been waiting for. My own sister, though brilliant, reading several classic novels at a time and possessing an amazing skill for art, had struggled in school for years both academically and socially when she was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome at the age of 15.  She had been previously diagnosed ADHD, but this diagnosis and treatment attempts had not done her much good.

For her, though there is no pill or cure for Asperger’s syndrome, just knowing there was a reason she had the troubles she did, and that there were others dealing with the same things, was a great relief and in my observations, has seemed to empower her.

And yet, some experts worry about just that sort of identification with the condition – will a diagnosis, and a potentially inaccurate diagnosis of high functioning autism unnecessarily scar a child? Make them feel even more ostracized than they already do?

It’s an important issue for our times and it’s one I don’t see going away anytime soon. Are we being poisoned by our environment? Is our monitor-screen-culture robbing us of our social skills? Are we calling traits “disease” which ought not to be? And is an autism diagnosis a blessing or a curse?

What’s your opinion?

I’d love to hear what you think!


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  • Autism is an epidemic and a detection boom. The environment, stress and better diagnosing is causing the rise. All parents should be concerned if their child is anywhere on the spectrum. As these children become adults and need care after aging out of the school sysem what happens next. As parents the stress is insurmountable to calculate how our sons life will pan out without us.

  • Pamela, I know there are group homes for adults with autism. I also know there are places that you can utilize for respite for adults with autism too. I used to work at one. It was great for parents because they could let their child go there for a weekend, interact with others who have autism or developmental disorders and then pick them back up. It serves as a great break for the parents and a great social setting for adults with autism.

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