It’s a headline every year: more children than ever have autism in the U.S. The narrative goes something like this: In 2016, autism occured in 1 in 68 kids. This past year, it was 1 in 59. Scientists haven’t nailed down the exact cause of symptoms associated with autism. So what’s really going on?
When taken out of context, narratives like these are incredibly dangerous. The prevalence of what we recognize as autism is going up—not the likelihood of a child being susceptible to autism. Autism includes a number of symptoms caused by mutations that could occur in hundreds of different genes, and the symptoms that scientists opt to include in the DSM definition of “autism” have changed upon every new release.
There are some common symptoms across the autistic spectrum, like sensory hypersensitivity (hearing loud things very loudly, for instance) and difficulty with communication. These symptoms have been consistently included in the definition of autism. But people with autism are also more likely to experience educational challenges, and they’re more vulnerable to conditions like epilepsy, ADHD, anxiety, and depression. In 2013, Asperger's Syndrome was absorbed into the autism spectrum.
Variation in state educational and mental health resources also affects prevalence statistics. A frequently repeated talking point is that autism is most prevalent in the state of New Jersey, and this year the CDC found that 1 in 34 children in New Jersey is on the autistic spectrum. But New Jersey is home to some of America’s best public schools and most robust special education resources, which makes it more likely that a child exhibiting symptoms of autism will be diagnosed. Likewise, economically disadvantaged children of color with autism are disproportionately less likely to receive a diagnosis compared to their white peers.
This CDC statistic is particularly vulnerable to exploitation by anti-vaxxers, who argue that the rate of autism diagnoses aligns with the rate of immunizations recommended for children each year. But this is completely deceptive and exploits the deepest worries of families who just want the best possible future for their children.
Researchers know autism is caused by genetics, but genetic testing has only advanced so far to explain less than 1 percent of all cases. And these tests are also incredibly expensive, placing them out of the budget of many people. Thankfully, outlets are getting better at mentioning what goes into statistics about the prevalence of autism. But let’s be real: the main talking point from the CDC’s annual autism report is simply the fact that the prevalence is up. Out of context, the emotional response that this inspires isn’t helping anyone.