An Autism Epidemic?

Diagnoses of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) have spiked recently:

One in 68 children in the US are identified with autism spectrum disorders, according to the latest estimates from the Centers for Disease Control. This estimate is 30 percent higher than the prevalence reported in 2012. CDC says that since the previous estimate of 1 in 88 children identified with ASD, the criteria used to diagnose, treat, and provide services have not changed. …

The latest report confirmed many of the previous findings, including the fact that ASD is almost five times as common in boys than as girls: 1 in 42 boys versus 1 in 189 girls were diagnosed. Also, white children are more likely to be diagnosed with ASD than black and Hispanic children. Experts credit that racial disparity to a difference in access to health care resources and well-trained experts, which they also believe explains why ASD prevalence ranges from 1 in 45 in New Jersey to 1 in 175 in Alabama.

Charlotte Howard digs deeper into the racial aspects:

White children were about 30 percent more likely to be autistic than black children and nearly 50 percent more likely than Hispanics. Interestingly, across children of all ethnicities, as many children were identified as autistic without intellectual disability as with it – the share of autistic children with average or superior IQs rose from one-third in 2002 to nearly half in 2010. But it was mostly white children, not black or Hispanic ones, who were identified as having both autism and normal or lofty intelligence.

These figures raise perplexing questions. Why the 120 percent jump [over the past eight years]? Why are rates so much higher among white children? The simplest answers (though not necessarily the correct ones) are that it has become easier to diagnose the problem and that white children are more likely to have access to such services.

Aaron Carroll says that he’s “officially become skeptical” of the growing autism scare:

I’d be panicked about this, if it didn’t seem improbable.  I’m a pediatrician, and I see lots of kids. I swear to you, the vast, vast majority of them don’t have autism. My three kids are in public school, and know tons of kids. Very few of them have autism. My many acquaintances have many kids. Some of them have autism, but the prevalence does not feel like 1 in 68. Nor does it feel like the prevalence has been doubling like seen here. And I acknowledge that my experience is not “data.” I’m totally open to the fact that I could be wrong. But these numbers don’t seem to gel with experience.