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Is the prevalence of Autism increasing?

As diagnosis methods change and awareness of autism increases, the number of autism diagnoses largely increases. Even more, autism is not understood in the same way that it was 70 years ago. It is true that an autism diagnosis now entails much more than it used to due to the broadness of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). However, many wonder if the diagnosis increase is due to the advances made in medical technology and understanding or if there are important environmental factors at play. 

After rejection of the “refrigerator mother” hypothesis in the late 1900s for its coldness, autism research turned its focus to examining genetic predispositions for autism. However, after decades of searching for a genetic cause and $1 billion of federal funding in the last 10 years alone, it seems that autism research may once again look to the environment for answers. At the end of the day, better understanding possible causes and risk factors for autism, regardless of what they are associated with, is a goal that all researchers, medical community members, and families share.

This author, Karen Weintraub, successfully explained, in an organized and quantified matter, contributions of different factors to the increase of autism diagnoses. The pie chart included in the article left room for both sides involved with the issue to argue over 46% of the contributing factors to the diagnosis increase that are still unknown. She also explained each type of factor clearly, using real-life and applicable examples, such as the ‘spatial clustering’ paradox in West Hollywood, CA, where children are four times more likely to be diagnosed with autism than in other parts of the country. 

However, mentioning specific examples of potential environmental factors that are being examined for their potential increased association with autism would better explain to readers exactly what government research dollars are going towards. Of course, she does mention a 2007 Study to Explore Early Development (SEED) study looking at environmental factors associated with autism. Their vague reference to ‘environmental chemicals’ doesn’t explain who is interacting with what factors.

Future progress for this area of autism science is clear from reading this article. More federal research funding needs to go to studies that look at specific environmental factors, what they are, and how they are potentially leading to the increase of autism diagnoses. It is possible that the environmental link with autism doesn’t exist. Either way, this uncertainty demonstrates the importance of researching the issue further.

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