Autism on the rise, or just its diagnosis?

While some have blamed skyrocketing expenditures for special education on an increase in children with disabilities, it has been hard to find solid evidence that the number of students with certain disabilities has increased; it seems more likely that the diagnosis of those disabilities is what has increased. A recent New York Times article about autism illustrates the problem. While the headline trumpeted "Study Shows Increase in Autism," the study described in the article did not actually demonstrate, or even claim, that there has been an increase in autism. Researchers did find many more children identified as autistic today than in the 1980s but, as the Journal of the American Medical Association wrote in its editorial accompanying the study: "Although it would be tempting to interpret this age trend as indicative of a secular increase in the rate of ASD ... such an explanation is both unlikely and biologically implausible... Rather the authors suggest that these differences might reflect new diagnostic criteria for autism and increased availability of developmental disability services for children with autism during the 1990s." (p. 87) There is a very important difference between a true increase in the prevalence of a disorder and an increase in the identification of people with that disorder. The New York Times article confuses the two, thereby misleading readers.

"Study Shows Increase in Autism," by Sandra Blakeslee, The New York Times, January 1, 2003 (abstract only, full article for purchase)

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