As reported recently in the Wall Street Journal (and elsewhere), autism diagnoses have risen sharply in recent years. The CDC announced a 23% increase in the number of people diagnosed “on the spectrum”, including as many as 1 in 88 American children.
As always when a study like this is released, doctors and scientists rushed to speculate what the change in numbers is all about. Some attribute the increase to a newer awareness in lower income families and minority groups who have previously been under-diagnosed. Others suggest that the change may be due to environmental factors, including vaccines – although this theory has been largely disputed and the original research tying vaccines to autism is now known to have been based on “bad science”. Finally, others wonder if the increase in diagnosed individuals is not indicative of a rise in the incidence of autism, but rather in increase in the awareness of doctors, therapist and parents who recognize less obvious behaviors as attributable to a spectrum disorder.
For those high-functioning kids that we know and love (Asperger’s, NLD, PDD-NOS, HFA), we definitely feel that the rise in diagnoses is at least partially due to a better understanding of these conditions. Asperger’s, for example, is a fairly new diagnosis. Many individuals were just thought of as “quirky” or “eccentric” until the mid-90s when the Asperger’s diagnosis really took hold in the US. Now, it seems as though Asperger’s is everywhere – books, movies, the news, etc. I know from our campers that being a member of this fairly new “tribe” has been somewhat of an awakening for them. They are happy to feel a part of a group – an experience that is not always familiar to them.
Regardless of why more individuals are being diagnosed, we are happy to see that there is more awareness and that people are talking about the Autism Spectrum. I turned on NPR the other day and quickly realized the segment was about ASD. A gentleman in his 60s called in and said that he was diagnosed with Asperger’s in his 50s and having the diagnosis was such a relief. He now understood why he was the way he was. It gave him some comfort. If that’s the case for many other individuals with AS, then perhaps this rise is a positive: more self-awareness, pride and connection for those on the spectrum and more public understanding, advocacy and appreciation for the “Aspies” among us!