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Is There An Autism Crisis?

written by: Keren Perles • edited by: Paul Arnold • updated: 8/25/2010

You may have heard about the autism crisis, the epidemic of autism that is supposedly sweeping through the western world. But what is the autism crisis? And does it definitely exist? Read on for a clear explanation of both sides of the autism epidemic controversy.

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    The Autism Crisis: A Brief History

    In order to answer the question "What is the autism crisis?" it is important to understand how our perceptions of autism have evolved since it was first defined. (In the past, scientists did not distinguish between autism and schizophrenia.) Since 1943, when Leo Kanner first defined "autism," our understanding of autism has changed significantly. In the 1940s, Dr. Bruno Bettleheim claimed that children became autistic due to "refrigerator mothers," who acted in cold and uncaring ways towards them. After two decades of mothers being consumed by guilt and shame, Dr. Bernard Rimland finally proved that autism has a biological component. Over the subsequent decades, scientists found additional proof of autism's genetic basis, and research on this topic continues until today. Although scientists have not yet found a definitive cause of autism, they have been researching several claims that might help them discover the various components that contribute to a child having autism.

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    What is the Autism Crisis?

    As time goes on, more and more children are being diagnosed with autism. In 2007, the statistic "one in 166" (the proportion of children diagnosed with autism) became famous. This showed a huge jump in prevalence since the 1990s and before, when researchers publicized the fact that only one in 2,500 children were on the autistic spectrum. The U.S. Department of Education had also revealed that the rate of autism had increased by 657 percent between 1993 and 2003.

    Some people say that the huge increase in the diagnosis of autism is a crisis that the world needs to address. Others disagree. Although they don't dispute the data, they believe that scientists are merely becoming more familiar with the symptoms of autism and are therefore reaching that diagnosis much more often. They maintain that diagnoses are far more accurate today, and people who in the past would have received a diagnosis of schizophrenia, or been diagnosed with another similar mental illness, are now correctly diagnosed with autism.

    In addition, people on the more typical end of the autistic spectrum would never have been diagnosed with any mental illness at all, and would have just been seen as "quirky" or "eccentric." Thus, the two sides of the autism epidemic controversy agree with the same set of statistics, but interpret them differently.

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    Possible Causes of the Crisis

    Those who believe that the increase in autism diagnoses presents a crisis of epic proportions claim that we need to take steps to find the causes of the crisis in an effort to stem the tide. They have come up with several possible explanations for the autism 'epidemic'.

    One of the most often touted possibilities is that vaccines are partially responsible for autism. Those who blame vaccines for the increase in autism diagnoses focus on the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine, as well as those containing mercury derivatives. However, no link has been established between MMR and autism.

    Others point the finger at preservatives and other non-natural additives in the foods that our children eat, as well as environmental pollution and pesticides.

    Even those who search out other causes believe that autism has a genetic component. At the same time, they ask "What is the autism crisis, and how can we solve it?" The question is, obviously, whether there is indeed a crisis at all.

Autism Research for Parents

Are you interested in the dynamics of how autism works? This series contains several articles that discuss what researchers have discovered or theorized about autism, especially those issues relevant to parents and caregivers.
  1. Vaccines and Autism: Are They Linked?
  2. Is There An Autism Crisis?
  3. What is the Executive Dysfunction Theory on Autism?
  4. Can Breech Births Cause Autism Spectrum Disorders?
  5. Brilliant Minds: What is an Autistic Savant?