By Dr Bob Sears
The reason we don’t have to care is because autism has ALWAYS been this common. There’s no real rise; we’ve just gotten better at diagnosing it. The government and many health experts are very adamant about this “fact” because, if word gets out that autism is truly on the rise, people are going to start wondering “why?” And, God forbid, if people actually realize there’s a real epidemic, instead of simply an outbreak of good diagnosticians, then they are going to get very concerned.
So, what happens when too many concerned people band together to try to effect change? The government listens. Or it doesn’t. What happens when it doesn’t? We are finding that out now. People start theorizing on their own as to why autism has risen so dramatically. And we wouldn’t want that, because people will come up with some really crazy theories as to what is causing autism.
Instead, if we can convince people that autism has always been this common, then they won’t worry so much about what’s causing it. It would probably just be some genetic factor that’s always been around. Maybe there’s something about the environment that we’ve been exposed to for centuries. But people won’t panic and start coming up with all kinds of crazy ideas about something NEW that might be causing a recent rise in autism. And the CDC can take its own sweet time in coming up with the answer. It might take a few decades, but what’s the rush? Since it’s not really increasing, and there’s unlikely to be a NEW cause lurking around, we can put the matter into the hands of our scientific community and let them run with it. Or crawl with it. Science takes a long, long, long, long . . . . . . long, long time to come up with answers to complex problems–especially when politics, money, and big business are involved.
So, let’s pause and review the numbers:
Decades ago, we thought autism affected about 1 in 10,000.
In the 80’s, we estimated 1 in 2,500.
Then the CDC started collecting data in a coordinated manner that allowed us to closely monitor what was happening. The CDC studies groups of 8-year-olds all born in a given year in various cities around the country and determines the rate of autism in those 8 year olds. Here are the data we have so far:
Studied in 2002, the rate of ASD for children born in 1994 was 1 in 150.
In 2006, the rate of ASD for children born in 1998 was 1 in 110.
In 2008, the rate of ASD for children born in 2000 was 1 in 88.
In 2010, the rate of ASD for children born in 2002 was 1 in 68 – this latest report. These are children born TWELVE years ago at this point. And it’s now 1 in 42 boys and 1 in 189 girls (1.)
So what is the rate now, for kids born this year? We don’t know. At the rate we are going, what’s it going to be? 1 in 40? 1 in 20?
Growing up, I don’t remember meeting ANYONE with autism. During my years in medical school in the early 90’s I didn’t see a single case. When I started as a pediatrician in the late 90’s, I thought autism was Rainman. I then began to see the kids with autism come in for help. I saw maybe a few each year at first; then, one per month. Then, they started pouring in and I hand to turn some away. I started seeing regressive autism in my own toddler patients whom I’d been seeing since birth. Now it’s 2014 and it’s still climbing. It’s becoming so common that I am thrilled when a whole week goes by without having the “I’m worried your toddler may be showing signs of autism” talk with a patient.
So, who’s right and who’s wrong? Is autism increasing or not? I don’t think anyone’s arguing that it’s actually 1 in 68 kids now. But if this is a real rise, at the rates we are seeing, and this latest number is for kids born TWELVE years ago, we are in deep trouble! We are falling apart and I have no doubt that it IS a real rise.
We can’t abandon science. The scientific method is important. What we NEED is for EVERYONE in the medical science community to ban together to figure this out. We need to start calling it for what it is: the most devastating medical emergency of our century. If we don’t find an answer soon, the day will come when we start screening all kids to identify the developmentally typical ones so that we can know who not to start early intervention therapy on. We must focus our research on environmental factors which cause the genetic and metabolic changes we see in autism. And we must make it stop. (2,3.)
Meanwhile, we’ve gotten pretty darn good at treatment and offering some preventive measures. That’s where organizations like TACA and MAPS (4) really shine. But finding THE CAUSE, and bringing an end to autism – that’s what we really need.
Dr. Bob Sears
Pediatrician, TACA Physician Advisor, and author of The Autism Book
Dr. Bob Sears blogs on TACA now: