They say autism is on the rise, but …

CNN just reported that autism is on the rise in the US. They mentioned causes like more toxins in our environment, etc.

What such reports usually fail to address are the statistics and methods behind the story. How was it decided that autism — or whatever — is “on the rise”? Inevitably, I’m left thinking:

  • Of course autism is on the rise; the population as a whole is on the rise! There are more people, hence more cases of autism and of everything else.
  • Medical research is constantly developing new methods of testing and diagnosis. Is it accurate to say a disease or condition is “on the increase” if the cases were there all along and just weren’t diagnosed as such until now?
  • Medicine is constantly adjusting its definitions of diseases and conditions. Loosen a definition just a hair and — voila — a bunch of borderline cases that weren’t “autism” yesterday become “autism” today. Is it right to add them to the total and say autism is on the rise? Conversely, if a definition were tightened and refined, resulting in fewer cases being labeled as, say, “autism,” would one announce the disease is on the decrease?

I’ve never been very good with numbers, and especially not statistics, but I always wonder about stuff like this. Maybe I’m not understanding something that’s clear to everyone else. Odds are (statistics again!) I’m wrong and all those reporters and their sources are right.

On the other hand, maybe it’s a matter of semantics. Semantics I’ll argue all day.

4 thoughts on “They say autism is on the rise, but …

  1. I saw that on CNN, too. My first thought was, “What toxins exactly, please?” It’s such a vague word. Anytime I hear that word I start tuning out.
    No kidding. Everything, theoretically, is toxic to somebody. Specifics, please!

  2. All of your points are valid, methinks. Unless autism is on the rise proportionally–as in there is now a higher percentage of kids with it–then it’s tough to call.
    See, I told you stats weren’t my forte. Percentage is what we need to know. And they weren’t talking about that.
    P.S. I paid closer attention this evening and they did mention a percentage increase over the last five years, or some such period.

  3. Thing is, autism is comes in a “spectrum” now. There is a continuum of symptoms/syndromes that can include conditions which may previously have borne other labels.

    In my opinion our minds (as social constructs) are the most fragile aspect of ourselves. Therefore it is the most exposed to all of the many damaging forces in our post post post modern “toxic” lifestyle …

    And with that you get folks trying to find the poisons. Take your pick, the toxins are everywhere. Maybe it’s the red dye #6 or maybe it’s in the immunizations all children receive. Whatever.

    Then there’s the statistical part of this data point. I also heard this news item recently and was surprised to hear that it was thought to be some 10 times more prevalent than Down syndrome, which is about 1 per 800 births.

    Mental illnesses are cataloged in the DSM IV, speaking of stats.

    I wonder if I had some point I was trying to make …

    Oh yeah, it was to say thanks for this interesting post!
    Thx. Your comment is interesting too.

    It’s very disturbing to think that something like autism is increasing and the researchers don’t know why.

  4. Oh yeah, now I remembered my point. It was to try to mitigate the alarm caused by this item in the news. Let’s save our alarm for all the greater disasters that are looming in our near future.

    That was the part of the report that irked me most. They said there was a percentage increase of yea much, and then said the researchers themselves couldn’t say how much of the increase was due to things like I mentioned above and how much was actually new cases. Seems like that amounts to NO STORY.

... and that's my two cents