Autism in the News (as seen in the Boston Globe on 4/10/06)

The rise in autism may reflect better diagnosis, not epidemic.

According to a study released in the April 2006 issue of Pediatrics, the rise in autism cases may not be evidence of an epidemic, but may reflect better diagnosis of autism by schools. The study revealed that the number of children classified by US special education programs as mentally retarded or learning disabled has declined in tandem with the rise in autism cases between 1994 and 2003, suggesting a switch of diagnoses.

The average prevalence of autism cases among 6-11 year olds enrolled in special education programs increased from 0.6 per 1000 students in 1994 to 3.1 per 1000 students in 2003. During the same period, diagnoses of mental retardation decreased by 2.8 per 1000 students, and diagnoses of learning disabilities dropped by 8.3 per 1000 students.

While there is clearly a need for more studies into the possible roles of genetic susceptibility and environmental triggers in autism, this research suggests that the past decade's rise in autism cases may have been more of a labeling issue.