In The Politics of Autism, I discuss prevalence and talk of an "autism epidemic." At Care2, Cody Fenwick writes:
The numbers usually used to support the “epidemic” thesis are indeed shocking, at least at first. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) had a prevalence of 1 in 5,000 in 1975, 1 in 150 in 2002, and 1 in 68 in 2012. That’s a powerful indication of a trend if there ever was one. But the truth behind these numbers is far murkier than it first appears.
First, it’s important to note that while diagnosis of autism has been going up, diagnosis of “intellectual disability” has declined. If we’re to take this data at face value, there’s as much an autism epidemic as there is a miracle cure for intellectual disability.
Additional research published earlier this year also casts doubt on the “autism epidemic” thesis. Extensive epidemiological analysis found that there was no change in American autism rates from 1990 to 2010, and that rates of autism were generally consistent across the globe.
One clever study in California looked at the geographical incidences of ASD diagnosis, and found that higher rates of the diagnosis were found in regions which had significantly higher levels of diagnostic resources. And if children were moved into a region with higher rates of the diagnosis, their chances of receiving a diagnosis increased.
Another reason to avoid using the term “autism epidemic” is that many people with autism identify with the condition, and object to likening it to a disease or plague. While most will acknowledge that people with autism face unique challenges in the life, it can be hurtful and demeaning to use the term “epidemic” when discussing a central part of their identity. This alone is reason enough to use more measured language
But jettisoning the term “autism epidemic” does not imply that we shouldn’t fight for better mental health services and research. It doesn’t even mean that there’s been no increase in the actual level of individuals with ASD, as the research is not decisive on that question. We just need to be honest about what the evidence does and doesn’t show, and we need to avoid making unwarranted claims to gain attention for our cause.