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The Rising Tide of Autism Diagnoses

Recently, the CDC released the findings of its most recent study showing that autism rates are on the rise again. Autism rates have climbed 150 percent since 2000, when the figure was one in 150 children.The rate of autism among children in New Jersey — now nearly 3 percent — is the highest ever documented nationwide, with nearly 5 percent of 8-year-old boys in the state on the autism spectrum in 2014, according to the CDC study. Autism diagnoses in New Jersey have tripled in 14 years and show no signs of leveling off, according to the study’s lead researcher.

In nearly every article and television news report I read since the report results were released, a significant part of the content is devoted to the speculation that the rise in rates of autism can be largely attributed to greater awareness of autism and changes in diagnostic criteria autism that create an “apparent (but not real!) epidemic.”  I am having a difficult time understanding why every single article and news report focuses on this point. Is the goal to suggest that there is no problem here? In what universe is the diagnosis of 5% of boys in New Jersey NOT a real epidemic?

Such attempts to reduce the alarm at the rates of autism are a dangerous call to complacency. The rates are shocking and our country is ill prepared to address and support the needs of these individuals. The growth rate is not the issue. Our schools, healthcare and social support systems are struggling (and often failing) to keep up with the demands of individuals with autism. So – please – if you want to address the new CDC report, and the rising rates of autism, please stop implying that the rapid growth is not “real.” Even if the number of individuals is similar to what it has always been (which I personally find hard to believe), our ability to identify those individuals is growing rapidly. Even if the new numbers include individuals who appear to not be as severely impacted as others, does not mean that those individuals do not struggle and need support. And with our ability to identify and diagnose individuals with autism is our duty to support them. Think about a call to action to ensure that people with autism are understood and are valued members of our society. Think about mentioning that autism most often impacts individuals throughout the lifespan, not just in childhood. So please stop implying that we can rest easy because the higher numbers are somehow an illusion, resulting from awareness and better diagnostic tools.

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