The Autism Epidemic

Autism is often identified as an epidemic. This position is held by charities that depend upon this perception to fund their activities. Autism is framed by the (often) non-autistic people who run these organizations as a rampant and increasingly prevalent disease state that needs to be controlled, cured and eventually eradicated. In this view, autistic people are an unfortunate burden and the lives of all would be better if autism could be vanquished.

This point of view is typically not shared by those who are autistic, as you might imagine. They see autism not as an rapidly increasing disease, but as a normally occurring state, present in a relatively fixed percentage of the population. In this view, autism is more obvious, more diagnosed, more discussed, more exposed, but not, in real terms, growing any faster than the population at large.

This graphic looks at the reality behind the autism epidemic and not just the hype. Clarity on the epidemic issue can help us all focus on what is most important: to improve the lives of all.

[The infographic links to a PDF version that you may distribute unaltered without restriction.]

32 Responses to The Autism Epidemic

  1. Deborah August 17, 2015 at 8:26 am #

    Thanks for making the statistics insightful. My heart dropped half a foot however when reading the sentence: ‘This will be true for as long as humans don’t have a way to prevent these births from happening.’ It suggests that if it were possible, these births should be prevented from happening.

    • Jim August 17, 2015 at 10:46 am #

      Yes, Deborah, it is very sobering. There are many autistic people that are concerned that this will happen, even going so far as to characterize the search for the “cure” for autism to be eugenics. Here’s one recent post from How Autistic Feels about Autism Speaks:

    • Michele Lepitre August 17, 2015 at 6:53 pm #

      Agreed….I felt the same way. I was going to share this article but this one statement made me reconsider.

      • Jim August 17, 2015 at 7:04 pm #

        That’s understandable, Michele, but it is the reality of the goal of a “cure.” The only way to “cure” autism is to prevent autistic people from coming into being. It is to me, sad. It is also, to so many more, an affront to their (and my) nature. It’s not likely, at least in the near future, but that is the goal.

    • Charlotte August 17, 2015 at 7:07 pm #

      Yep, same… Wanted to share it, but realised that I was going to have to excuse that sentence. Might do so anyway, but tbh, most folks who’d see it kinda know this stuff in any case. Makes my stomach churn that it’s even a thing that people might say.

      I suppose on a really cold, rational level (the sort that even I have to force), that sentence is factually – the only way to stop autism happening *is* stop autistic people being born. It’s just that that should never, ever be an option, or a consideration, and even putting it into words is really quite nasty as a concept. One of those moments where a fact is entirely unnecessary, and if someone really thought about what they were saying, it might not have happened. One can hope…

      • Jim August 17, 2015 at 7:11 pm #

        Unfortunately, it is the explicit goal of genetic screening. It is an inconvenient truth (not to mention horrid and unconscionable).

  2. Jennifer Gilbreath August 17, 2015 at 6:25 pm #

    A friend shared a post from an herbal/organic-type site that asked its readers what they thought was the cause of the the “autism epidemic.” The answers were many, most of them of the “GMO/vaccine/pesticide/bad food” variety, others blaming artificial sugars, mothers who ate or did the wrong things during pregnancy, etc., and the whole thing in general got my blood boiling. So forgive the length of this post, but I wanted to share with you the response I wrote there, because it has some application here as well:

    “Here’s a question for all of you that will really boggle your minds, then: if it is because of the foods we eat, or something the mother did or ate, or some other external organic cause, why is it FAR MORE PREVALENT in boys? Not that girls can’t be autistic, I’m not saying that. At all. But boys are far more likely to be diagnosed. The only common factor there would be the fact that your sex is determined by your father. Should we start blaming the dads now? Are the girls living on a different planet than the boys? Eating different foods? Getting different medications? Seems unlikely. So what do we point our fingers at now then? Maybe we stop pointing. It does no good. Maybe we start trying to build a society that accepts and understands and supports these individuals and we let science do the figuring out. Maybe we build schools that don’t have elementary school autistics arrested for behaviors they can’t control—it happens, I’ve seen it—but instead are designed to help them overcome those behaviors. Maybe we don’t tell autism parents they just need to use more discipline when we haven’t spent a day in their shoes wrestling a child down to keep him from hurting himself or worn the bruises that come with being an autism parent. I’ve worn them, have you? Maybe we learn tolerance for the child making odd noises in the corner and compassion for his parents. But most of all, maybe we STOP POINTING FINGERS. No parent wants to feel like he or she is to blame for their child’s suffering, and that’s what you are all doing. Stop it. Have some respect for the people here who live this life and are doing the best we can by our kids.”

    • Michele Lepitre August 17, 2015 at 6:49 pm #

      Well said! Thank you!

    • Jim August 17, 2015 at 6:57 pm #

      Yes, indeed, Jennifer. Well said. Let’s stop the blame game. We might as well blame people for giving birth to children that will eventually be too tall to pass through doorways because it was in their genes, or for feeding them too much so they grew.

      Do you want to provide a link to the post where you made the comment?

        • Jim August 17, 2015 at 9:20 pm #

          Thank you, Jennifer. I read as many of the comments as I could, but I couldn’t get through all 380+. It is frustrating how much misinformation is out there and I am afraid it would be very difficult to dislodge those false notions from the minds of so many, too many. My hope is that we can continue to make the rational fact-based case and slowly erode the hype. Thanks for doing your part. I’m sorry you were so frustrated.

  3. romez August 17, 2015 at 8:27 pm #

    This is different talk in the Autism community, and ive learned alot! Thanks

  4. Warren Peace August 17, 2015 at 8:28 pm #

    You can thank most of your innovation on the autistic traits. And you can thank celebrity chasing, rampant consumerism on neurotypical brains. It is an evolution for the better.

    Anyway, you need to take a course in statical analysis.
    1 in 88 is a ratio like a percentage. If autism was simply increasing because of population increase, the ratio would remain constant. 1 in 250 for a population of a 1000 is the same as 1 in 250 for a population of a million or a billion.
    The percentage of autism per capita is increasing. 1 in 88 is more prevalent than 1 in 250 over any population.

    Also, there are more charities because more people need help and the government support is inadequate. People are trying to help themselves. And yes, that mean money. To thin otherwise is naive.

    • Jen August 18, 2015 at 2:55 pm #

      I was just diagnosed with Autism. I was not in the numbers of people 5 years ago, or 10, and since I am 36 was not on the list of people with Autism when I was in the schools. I have never been able to live independently. But I could talk to teachers- just not most of my classmates. My shutdowns were to start silently crying and not understand myself what was wrong so not be able to tell the teacher who was kneeling beside my desk and who just by looking at me and talking quietly was making it worse. I was 35 before someone saw me have a shut down and who simply got me to a quieter place, stood behind me, put a hand lightly on one shoulder so I knew she was there, and waited. She had the knowledge that my teachers didn’t. And that those who work with my uncle didn’t. He should have been counted when he was a child. Every story my father and aunt tell about him, when you have the knowledge we now do, screams that. They describe what can only be meltdowns, obsessive hobbies, his avoidance of being around people. Events of the 5 years before we lost contact with him, which I did witness, also lead to that answer. Adult autistics can have wonderful marriages- but every item on his side that led to his divorce and to us losing track of him is a symptom. As are the problems his eldest son was having. Whether he was ever added to that ratio I don’t know. As more adults find that they have Autism the numbers should be changed for the years when we were alive but unrecognized.

      I have a motor-neuron disease. It is a non-fatal ALS relative that my mother has and my grandfather had. Mom cannot sit up or roll over without Dad or I moving her. Her dad was like that. Most people with this genetic disorder don’t get much worse than I am now. Because it is a rare disease (30 people known to have it in my state) where we spend the research money becomes very important. In some states the MS group will help us with getting wheelchairs and other living needs. But what the Spastic Paraplegia Foundation decides to put it’s funding into is of vital importance, because if they put a lot into something that doesn’t pan out in humans it is wasted time and money. If they get to human trials and it harms, it is even worse. Not all charities for any condition are created equal. And a lot of money goes to things that would have been torture to me. I would rather have learned to make small talk in an online game, as I went from asking for help playing with the strangers in my team to offering help, because I looked up everything related and am good at rephrasing what I know endlessly until it is understood, to gradually joining conversations, to being a part of a 24/7 group FB chat that 12 of us wander in and out of, than have been forced to learn to act normal. The people I interact with accepted me before I was diagnosed, are glad to see me more as I do some of the tamer social gatherings and not just the learning ones or the work things, and when I falter and tell them I know I am not acting “interested,” but I am autistic and can only follow the things they are saying if I’m monitoring eye contact and facial expression and so on. What the SPF puts it’s money on will lead to a very different outcome for a boy I know who uses crutches, a wheelchair, and an assistance dog. How we treat ASD children will also. I can choose not to have a child- not because of ASD, but because I have more genetic conditions that can affect a baby than I have mentioned. I don’t know how fast the people who are working to fix the motor nerves will go, or what will happen with autoimmune research or how much I need to worry about the aunts who had breast cancer before the age of 50, and more. But just because this is not talking about my child doesn’t mean that, based on my experiences, I don’t worry that they will research the wrong therapy or neglect some idea that would help care for us. I consider my knowledge and my experiences to be only useful if I do consider the effects on others. Which means supporting some ideas whole-heartedly and wanting others stopped.

      • Jim August 18, 2015 at 3:30 pm #

        Hi Jen. You’ve certainly given me and anyone else reading a lot to digest and think about. It is clear that the percentage of autistic people per capita is not increasing. It is the percentage of identified autistic people per capita that has changed over time. This is a result of changing diagnostic criteria, more attention to the subject (more people looking and counting), counting those that were previously unknown or hidden (my group) and similar reasons. Recent research backs this up. The perception of an epidemic is being used by some charities, not all, to fund research and other activities that match the charity’s agenda. There are many non-profits that work admirably for autistic causes, I am sure. But the bottom line is, as they say on Twitter, #NoEpidemic.

  5. Kathy August 18, 2015 at 1:01 am #

    Thank you for this infographic. Sharing and saving for future reference – I’m assuming it’s okay to share as it’s been posted on some public FB pages.

    • Jim August 18, 2015 at 5:59 am #

      Certainly it is okay. This page is public, as is everything on Living Amongst Humans.

  6. Catriona August 18, 2015 at 3:58 am #

    I was recently at a seminar during which was presented a very interesting ‘snapshot’ of current research and funding priorities. One of the things that is going on in genetic research – massively funded – is not so much seeking the means of eradicating autism but in creating further markets for the pharmaceutical companies. The genetics science is becoming so sophisticated that what is beeing explored is medication to ‘switch off’ or ‘switch on’ genetic biofunctions. So, a child, for example, who has been identified as having the necessary genetic makeup to possibly be autistic, could be put on medication before the age of 3 (I am making this up as an example by the way) to make them ‘more normal’.

    • Jim August 18, 2015 at 6:09 am #

      That seems just as troubling to me—finding the value proposition in autism in another direction: pharmaceuticals (that must be taken daily, no doubt). It is troubling in other ways too. I certainly wouldn’t want to have been changed in that manner, assuming it is even possible. I don’t know what it would mean to make me “normal.”

  7. Nottyboy August 18, 2015 at 1:42 pm #

    How do you account for low functioning autism like Jamie’s:

    Do you speak for them too?

    • Jim August 18, 2015 at 2:28 pm #

      I don’t understand your question about “accounting.” I haven’t said anything that wouldn’t apply to this man. I don’t use the same labels or categories as you do, by the way. They are so imprecise (see Boundary Issues).

      We are all different, all unique. I don’t speak for anyone but myself. I’m not smart enough to do more than that, nor would I have the right to do so. I might speak


      groups of people, but I don’t represent them any more than they represent me.

  8. Hal Eagar August 18, 2015 at 5:20 pm #

    While I appreciate your intended commentary “I just copied the previous chart” is both ridiculous and disingenuous. And unfortunately such a obviously dishonest behavior renders the whole chart meaningless, and degrades not only your own argument but anyone else who may be trying to convey the same information by honest means.

    Your flippant behavior is the greatest threat to the very topic you seem to care about.

  9. Anonymous August 19, 2015 at 1:30 am #

    Bit of deception in the graphs. One is obviously wrong. The percent of people diagnosed with autism has increased in first world countries during the past few decades. The increase is not due to population growth, it is an actual increase as a percent of population. The reason for that is being debated, ie is it due to doctors labelling more people as autisitc, or is it an actual percent increase. Once you put up that graph, the credibility of the presentation vanished for me. I am sure whoever did the graphs must know that which makes it disappointing that somebody would be so knowingly deceptive. It is hard enough to get up-to-date, accurate, scientific information on autism without having to deal with voodoo presentations like the one above. Anyway, just my thoughts. Good luck to you all. Craig.

  10. Jim August 19, 2015 at 6:41 am #

    It is probably worth some clarification for those who may not have understood the intent of the last two charts. They don’t represent the autistic population fraction that have been diagnosed. The reported rates of autism are confounded by many factors: attention to autism in general, more professionals better educated on the subject, changing diagnostic criteria, etc. Rather, those graphs reflect the text “The only reason there are more autistic people in the world today is because there are more people in the world today.” I’m not sure if some people didn’t realize this, despite the intentionally whimsical sources identified for those last two graphs, or if any stated disagreement represents a belief that there has been a real increase in fraction of the population that is autistic: that the so-called epidemic is actually a real one. In any case, I hope this clarification is helpful. The per capita autistic population is steady over time because it is a normal variation in human brain organization. This stability is supported by the source that Hal Eagar rightfully pointed out and others including the recent Penn State study. Feel free to disagree with that assertion, but I wanted to be clear about what I was actually saying.

  11. Anonymous August 21, 2015 at 10:44 am #

    Their is no such thing as a genetic epidemic.

    • Jim August 21, 2015 at 10:49 am #

      I agree completely. Nor is there such a thing as an epidemic of autism. If anything, there is an epidemic of autistic discovery: the curtains being opened and the light streaming in to make visible what was there all along.

  12. liam August 26, 2015 at 6:04 am #

    Hi Jim, I like this page a lot. I have an autistic daughter and it makes me smile inside to see light along the road. However, I did want to point out a logical fallacy above. The number of autistic people is NOT increasing in line with the population according to the CDC but at roughly double the number.

    Much of this could be due to more advanced (and possibly more broad diagnostic tools, but not all.

    Anyway, just wanted to put that out there.


    • Jim August 26, 2015 at 7:33 am #

      I’m glad you liked it, liam.

      There are so many confounding contributions to reported prevalence numbers (such as the CDC statistical summary you mentioned). Changing diagnostic criteria, increasing capability/willingness to diagnose, different data collection methods, and plenty of other factors all influence what is reported. Also, many of the quoted numbers, from various studies, are referenced because they support a particular position for political or economic reasons (the specter of vaccines coming from Big Pharma, the fear of epidemic as a driver for charitable contributions, etc.). I would be careful to put much faith in them.

      Instead, I would examine any research that seeks to explain the change (or stability) in rates of autistic births, because that is the source of autism. We aren’t made through accidents of environmental exposure. We come from our parents, as part of a historically stable fraction of the population. Natural selection strongly disfavors maladaptive sub-populations and yet neurodiversity is still prevalent among humans. Look for explanations for why we persist, not for frightening epidemic assertions.

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