More People are being Diagnosed with Autism: Why?
The range and definition of ASD has widened in the past 20 years
Previously, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) used to encompass those on the severe end of the spectrum, such as those who were non-verbal, coupled with what were seen as intellectual disabilities and cognitive delays. Now, autism has come to include people who have a wide scope of symptoms that range in severity, many of whom are functioning and contributing members of society.
Sub-categories such as Asperger’s Syndrome, Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS) and Childhood Disintegrative Disorder (CDD) have also recently been added to the spectrum that is the autism umbrella. What was previously categorized as mentally disabled or an intellectual disability is now transferring over to categories like ASD. The existence of a disorder or any medical condition depends on the scope of its definition.
Autism awareness is spreading
Because the definition of autism is growing and more people are now considered to be on the spectrum, this means that the autism awareness movement is moving fast. You can even see characters with autism in mainstream media these days, for example: Sheldon Cooper from Big Bang Theory, Max Braverman from NBC’s Parenthood and the first muppet with autism named Julia on Sesame Street. Icons like Susan Boyle have publicly mentioned her late age diagnosis of Asperger’s that she acknowledges would not have been able to happen when she was younger. This all helps in reducing stigma, which has great implications for the future of autism treatment.
With autism awareness comes more funding, and available support services that can cater to ASD individuals. Acknowledgement of ASD has led to more viable options for families to turn to, especially after an early diagnosis. Because of this, acceptance of the diagnosis has also become more prevalent.
Results varied depending on the study's methodology
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently released a new study that 1 in 45 people have ASD, compared with their previous study of 1 in 68 that was based on 2011 data. Many experts have come out and stated that the manner in which the CDC study asked the questions probably played a significant part in the rising numbers. The questions asked in the earlier 2011 study included three categories: intellectual disabilities, autism spectrum disorders and developmental disabilities. Rather than a sudden increase in people now having ASD, it is much more likely that individuals previously categorized in intellectual and developmental disabilities have now identified with ASD instead.
For instance, the new study based off 2014 data specifically asked participants if health professionals had ever mentioned if their child had autism, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Asperger's disorder or pervasive developmental disorders. This change in phrasing to include all things under the autism spectrum umbrella most likely shifted the results.
Robert Fitzgerald, an epidemiologist in psychiatry at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis believes that these results could not have happened without a change to the study’s methodology. He goes on to say that an organic jump from 1 in 88 to 1 in 45 in four years would have had a resulted in a significantly noticeable change in autism risk factors regarding the general population, therefore, the change in question structure is probably relevant.
What will the future bring?
Many individuals have also had arguments and discussions about the growing toxins and GMOs that have been entering our bodies, as a result of our modern day diet they attribute to the rise in autism diagnoses. For the time being, many of these debates are based on correlational studies and anecdotal evidence which makes it hard to know for sure.
That being said, the autism world has been changing so rapidly in both research and the autism community, who knows what the next decade or two will bring. Many call it an epidemic because of its rising prevalence, but really are we just doing a better job of encompassing the spectrum that it is?
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