Autism Diagnosis Rates Not on the Rise: Reclassification From Mental Retardation and Learning Disabilities

Autism is a broad term that affects an individual’s ability to function cognitively and emotionally. Children and adults with autism have a range of deficits that may compromise their ability to function well in social situations as well as learn new material.

Autism can be a devastating diagnosis that goes hand in hand with severely reduced mental functioning or, in milder forms, merely reduce an individual’s acquisition of social skills and hinder his or her ability to learn certain forms of information.

Causes of Autism

In recent years the number of cases of autism have risen exponentially. Estimates of the number of cases of autism in the American population range from one in 165 people to as low as one in 100 people. According to experts this number has increased tremendously over the last few decades.

On the surface this accusation would appear to be true. Autism rates, we are often told, are on the rise in very scary numbers. Millions of children appear to have a defect that can cause life long consequences for their social, physical, emotional, mental and emotional well being.

Statistics would appear to bear this out. The rate of autism does indeed appear to have increased at every turn.

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Yet, as frightening as this statistic is, parents everywhere may want to breath a sigh of relief. According to a well-designed study in the April 3rd issue of the Journal of Pediatrics, the apparent rise in autism has taken place in conjunction with other factors.

While autism rates have risen there has also been a statistically significant decline in the number of cases of mental retardation and learning disabilities.

This information suggests an obvious conclusion. Children who might have been labeled mentally retarded or learning disabled a generation ago are now being labeled autistic.

The authors of the study looked at the rates of mental retardation and learning disabilities between 1994 and 2013. They found that the number of children per thousand being diagnosed with mental retardation fell by nearly three percent. The number of children being diagnosed with learning disabilities fell by over eight percent.

Diagnostic Substitution

The authors conclude that the idea of autism epidemic is flawed. Instead there is what the authors call “diagnostic substitution” or the substitution of one diagnosis for another.

This is not an uncommon phenomenon. Diagnosis is not always an exact science. What may be apparent to one doctor is not always obvious to another. State officials may direct resources to a specific disability while reducing the amount of funds directed towards a similar illness. Such decisions can provide a motivation for parents and school officials to push a student towards one diagnosis and not another.

Consequently it is hardly surprising that some diseases may appear to be on the rise while others are on the decline. This does indeed appear to be the case with autism.

Parents and others who are concerned about the supposed increase in autism rates should examine the data more closely. Rather than focus on outside factors that make very little sense (such as vaccinations as a cause of autism) officials and other concerned parties should look carefully at all possible factors. Autism may indeed be on the rise but this is not necessarily cause for alarm.