There is no Autism Epidemic

In the wake of the recent rise in popular distrust of the science community and its findings, fuelled by movies like Vaxxed that purport that vaccines may be the cause of “the increasing rates of autism” in the present day, now would be the perfect time to debunk a few myths, as concerns this issue.

One of the main arguments put forth by those who are opposed to vaccination is that autism is a new condition, an unheard of phenomenon in our history, and one that is rapidly on the rise because of the vaccines that are being administered to people. Indeed, in the film mentioned above, Vaxxed, Dr Stephanie Seneff, a computer scientist, is quoted as saying by 2032, 80% or boys and 50% of all children will be on the autism spectrum. Thankfully, there are many scientists, media outlets and blogs that have done a pretty good job of debunking the claims made in this movie.

What is most ponderous is the fact that despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, many people still find it easier to go right on believing. Or at the very least they fear that she may be correct.

By taking a careful look at the science behind autism and immunisation one can clearly see that vaccines do not cause autism. However, if you still distrust this scientific approach towards resolving this problem, you could settle for a logical approach.

For those not totally familiar, using logic entails building statements that lead to facts by adhering to basic rules and valid conditions. For example, “If all philosophers are thinkers and Peter is a philosopher, then Peter is a thinker,” counts as a logical statement because if one is true and the other is true, then the third must be true.

True. Now take a look at another one: If the mental retardation and schizophrenia rates in USA used to be 3-5% and the current diagnosis of similar behavior is now called autism or intellectual disability and rates are currently 3-5%, then the autism rate is not increasing.

Autism is not new, neither is it increasing. The current “epidemic” we are witnessing is simply a result of a change in diagnostic practices, naming and increased awareness.

Prior to 1900, science was still struggling in its understanding of behaviour that deviated from what we had up till then come to accept as the norm.

Before the 1970s, there was nothing like special education in existence in the United States. Thanks to a fair amount of litigation and landmark legal cases in Pennsylvania Assn. for Retarded Children v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (PARC) and Mills v. Board of Education of District of Columbia, by 1975 Congress had passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act which has since been amended, revised and renamed IDEA, The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Due to the sweeping changes implemented by IDEA, today there are any more children who are educated in public schools, and this has been thanks to the change in educational and medical diagnoses for behaviour and disabilities.

Before IDEA, it was more common to hear terms like “Mentally Retarded” and “Schizophrenic” in place of what we have for autism today.

An interesting point is exposed by the work of Dutch epidemiologists Roeleveld and Zilhuis in their analysis on the prevalence of mental retardation in which they looked at the rates of severe to mild cases of mental retardation from 1939 to 1986. Following their study, they put the rate of mental retardation at 3%.

According to statistics from the Autism Science Foundation and the National Center for Education Statistics, 1.12% and 0.98% or children in the public school have autism and Intellectual disabilities respectively. This makes for about 2% of the public school system. Acknowledged that there are other cases outside of the public school system, for the sake of argument let us take the rate to be 2% in real life, in the United States.

Take into account the emergence of other diagnoses that would not have been made prior to particular landmark years like 1940 for Asperger’s Syndrome (Asperger’s was not an official diagnosis until 1994). To the above, add the fact that in 2013, the term “mentally retarded” was struck from the federal registers by President Obama to be replaced by “intellectual disability”.

After that, this is what we end up with:

  • Mental retardation and schizophrenia rates in USA used to be 3-5%
  • Current (2016) autism rate is 1.47-2%
  • Approximately 1% of public school children are identified as intellectually disabled
  • Mental retardation diagnosis was replaced by intellectual disability or autism diagnosis
  • Asperger’s was not commonly diagnosed until recently
  • 1+2=3
  • There are a small percentage of children diagnosed as autistic or intellectually disabled who are in private schools. They are not accounted for in the federal special education statistics. Let’s say they would be 1-2%.
  • 3+2=5

When you look at the above in a logical manner you can clearly see that they rate of autism has not changed in the last 100 years. We just changed the name we use for it. The 3% rate for autism and intellectual disability in public schools today, is the same as the 3% for mental retardation and schizophrenia rates of yesteryear.

Conclusion: Autism is not new


Autism, Therapy & Treatment