More autism news: Is increase medical or diagnostic?

In October, a new government-run study found the the rate of autism among U.S. kids had risen sharply to 1 in 91, down from 1 in 150 a few years ago and rates as low as 1 in 10,000 in the 1980s.

But as we reported in October, the report was met with skepticism and general confusion over what the new numbers really mean. There is no clear diagnostic test for autism and symptoms vary widely (a person is said to fall somewhere on the “autism spectrum”). As soon as the study hit the presses, doctors faced a chorus of parents who wanted to know: Is there more autism out there or just more diagnoses of autism?

The medical consensus was that the spike was the result of better diagnostic tools and higher awareness of autism. Kids that might have once been labeled “developmentally delayed” or even “mentally retarded” were now being given labels of — and, they pointed out, treatment for — autism.

But a study released this week by the University of Exeter in Britain, perhaps not surprisingly, found that people affected by autism aren’t buying it. A review of letters sent to health professionals shows that people who have autism or know someone with autism overwhelmingly believe the increase is actual — that autism is increasing in prevalence rather than simply being diagnosed more often. And many of them blame environmental factors like immunizations for the increase, despite most medical experts denying a link.

“Our study highlights the contrast between lay explanations of the increasing prevalence of autism and the consensus opinion of medical experts,” says researcher Ginny Russell. “It also demonstrates the strength of lay belief that the rise is due to risks from modern technologies and changing lifestyles, showing a latent unease with these developments.”

That frustration could be heard in several comments on our November story. From Teresa Conrick: “As a parent to a teen with severe autism, who regressed after a series of vaccines before the age of 3, these numbers are real and frightening.” From Joanna Antonetti, who also has a child with autism: “It makes my blood boil when I hear comments from doctors that claim all the scientific evidence proves that vaccines do not cause autism.”

No answers here, but more food for thought…and possibly fuel for the fire.

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