Should You Worry About New York’s Rising Autism Rate?


Today is World Autism Awareness Day, which happens to come shortly the Centers for Disease Control announced that 1/88 children nationwide has an autism spectrum disorder — a 23 percent increase since the last report was released in 2009. Long term, this represents a 78 percent increase from data gathered six years ago.

In New York specifically, autism cases have gone up 28 percent since 2009. DNAinfo says: “Their numbers are growing at an alarming rate.”

DNAinfo does ID a big problem: namely, that it’s extremely difficult for these kids and their parents to get access to necessary services. It’s just wrong to make them navigate bureaucracy when the only thing they should spend time and effort on is treatment.

However, something does need to be said about these recently reported numbers.

Now, to be perfectly clear, Runnin’ Scared is not trying to downplay the severity of autism spectrum disorders or their prevalence: that 1/88 American kids have this condition is both cause for concern and action.

But it’s not clear whether this necessarily reflects a bourgeoning epidemic.

While we’re also not making the case that the increase can entirely be ascribed to better detection and reporting — maybe there really is more autism — the fact is that this uptick can largely be explained in terms of data collection.

As the L.A. Times reported before the CDC’s announcement:

“The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that nearly 1% of children across the country have some form of autism — 20 times the prevailing figure in the 1980s. The increase has stirred fears of an epidemic and mobilized researchers to figure out what causes the brain disorder and why it appears to be affecting so many more children.

Two decades into the boom, however, the balance of evidence suggests that it is more a surge in diagnosis than in disease.”

A New York Times editorial notes that: “no one knows whether the increase shows that the disorders are more common or whether it simply reflects better detection of cases that would previously have been missed.”

As detailed in the CDC report: “Some of this increase is due to the way children are identified, diagnosed and served in their communities, although exactly how much is due to these factors is unknown.”

Now, the possible relationship between better reporting and increased rates is nothing new. Even in 2007, for example, Slate noticed that:

“Psychiatrists made no real effort to systematically diagnose childhood mental illness […] until 1980, when the American Psychiatric Association published the third edition of its diagnostic manual.

Further revisions of the manual in 1987 and 1994 expanded the number of children whose problems could be described as lying on the ‘autistic spectrum.'”

What also fostered these diagnoses? “The most important cause of the increase in autism diagnoses was the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, a federal law that required states to provide suitable education to autistics and to create registries for them.”

The Times‘ editorial sheds more light on this:

“The survey examined records at health clinics and schools for evidence that children were suffering from either full-fledged autism, Asperger syndrome, or a related disorder known as pervasive development disorder. These so-called autism spectrum disorders run the gamut from severe cases in which the children don’t talk and have limited intelligence to relatively mild cases in which children are socially awkward but able to function at a reasonably high level.”


“There is a move within the psychiatric profession to tighten the criteria for autism to exclude many of the milder forms of the disorder. If that change were to appear in the next edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the surveys would adopt the new definition and the prevalence numbers would likely decline.”

So yes: There’s no doubt that there is more known autism. And there’s also no doubt that more resources should be made available to families impacted by the disorder. But health and educational services can certainly be made readily available without reverting to emotionalism.

Archive Highlights