With each passing year, the number of people diagnosed with autism is increasing. While 0.05% of the population was defined as autistic in 1966 in the USA, today this rate has reached 2%! Since 2000, in the Quebec region of Canada, the number of people with autism has increased by an average of 24% each year.
According to the data of the American Psychiatric Association, there has been a significant increase in the number of children with autistic symptoms in recent years. Due to the improvements in research methods and the increase caused by environmental effects, autistic symptoms seen in 1 in 500 children increased to 1 in 150. Important findings have been obtained in recent studies that developmental disorders may be caused by genetic factors.
While 1 of every 37 boys is diagnosed with autism, 1 out of every 151 girls is diagnosed with autism. As can be understood from the statistics, the probability of observing autism in boys is higher than in girls. In the United States, it is estimated that more than 3 million children and individuals are diagnosed with autism.
According to the researches, the rates observed by evaluating and screening children of different age groups by experts in their field were 1/160 in 2000, 1/59 for 2018, and this rate was reported as 1/68 in 2014. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) publishes articles on autism rates each year, reporting estimated numbers and actual numbers. According to recent studies, the prevalence of autism spectrum disorder has been reported as 1 in 54 children.
Autism is the developmental disorder with the fastest increasing values worldwide, especially in America. Increasing these numbers also increases the amount of money spent on autism treatment, interventions, and research.
Although there is currently no known diagnostic method or a single treatment method with certainty for autism, the importance of early diagnosis and effective intervention is an undeniable fact. The increase in prevalence rate can not only be explained by diagnostic methods, but it is also a fact that it is directly proportional to today’s technology and knowledge. As scientific studies, experiments, expert knowledge, and health services improved, the number of individuals diagnosed with autism increased.
While the organic cause of autism is still unclear, existing studies have determined that the reasons for the increase in autism’s prevalence are both genetics and environment.
Why Is the Rate of Autism Increasing So Fast?
There are two obvious reasons for this increase. One of these is the development and spread of diagnostic tools. Because of the fact that it is easier to diagnose in today’s World. Second, environmental factors are thought to trigger the prevalence of autism spectrum disorder.
In studies examining the reasons for this increase in frequency, the reason for this was explained for different reasons. For example; the diagnosis of autism becomes more known, an increasing number of diagnostic units such as child psychiatry centers or public awareness are some reasons that can explain the increase.
In addition, since autism is a known disorder that occurs in the first years of a person’s life, research has been conducted on newborn children in the diagnoses made so far. As a result of the studies on the subject, individuals who exhibit the symptoms of this disorder at an advanced age are now included in the definition.
Although the exact cause of autism is unknown, many non-specific causes (genetic causes, advanced birth age, viral infection, etc.) have been identified. It is thought that keeping good records, changing diagnostic criteria and increasing awareness is effective in explaining the increase. However, this situation is still not enough to explain the whole increase.
Researchers say that a good strategy is needed to better define and document autism symptoms. They also add that there is a need for more standardized and widely accepted measures to document the severity and functional limitations of ASD associated with the disease. Thus, administrators, health personnel, educators, and child caregivers will be able to ensure that the child receives the diagnosis of ASD as soon as possible and is directed to the appropriate education and treatment according to needs.
Has the Definition of Autism Spectrum Disorder Broadened Over the Years?
Obviously, the definition of autism spectrum disorder has changed over the years as it is supposed to be. However, this definition has been broadening since the first definition done by Leo Kanner. According to the first definition, only children who were socially isolated and withdrawn were included. Only they were seen as children with autism.
After the first description, the estimation prevalence rate was 1 in 2500 children. Most probably this estimation was based on severe autism. Because in those times only severe autism symptoms were being observed. If the child would have mild symptoms, they were not included in this estimation.
Before 1991, children with autism were accepted as children with intellectual disabilities. After this year, this trend has changed. This change gave families the courage to take their children to pediatricians to get an assessment of autism.
In 1994, the 4th edition of the DSM was published. The definition of autism has been broadened. They included Asperger’s syndrome in the 4th edition. Then, in 2013, the 5th edition of the DSM was released. According to the last definition, autism is a spectrum disorder. Now, autism, Asperger’s syndrome, pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified and many others are collected under one diagnosis which is an autism spectrum disorder. It is a term that is even now used by pediatricians.
Nevertheless, the last estimation of the prevalence rate was done based on DSM-4. The next one will be based on DSM-5 and researchers believe that the prevalence rate will be lower.
Effects of Definition on Autism Studies
Current studies on autism reveal that individuals with autism differ from the “general population” in the following 7 headings. Recognizing emotions, understanding that other’s have emotions and thoughts, switching between tasks, activity planning, suppression of behavior, response stimulation (the nervous system’s ability to respond to stimuli from sensory organs), and finally brain volume. Among the public, autism is defined by suffering social interaction and communication problems, restricted and self-repeating behaviors.
Autism is not seen as a categorical disease today, but rather as a spectrum disease. In other words, there is no such thing as “either with autism or without autism”. Depending on how you are in each of the 7 categories above, you may be at any point on the spectrum between having autism and not having autism. This situation makes the diagnosis of autism difficult and the meaning of the statistics in this area is ambiguous.
This not only affects diagnosis and statistics but also directly affects how autism research is conducted. As the definition of autism becomes ambiguous and the number of the population defined as autistic increases, the smallest population required for autism research is rapidly expanding. This situation both compromises the results of old studies and results in new studies requiring more participants. Accordingly, how experts approach autism is changing radically. Naturally, this affects you directly if you have a relative with autism.
In one study, experts examined how much the differences between the general population and people with autism decreased from year to year, depending on the definition of autism. In 5 of the 7 categories we just mentioned, they found that the difference between the general population and people with autism has decreased by between 45% and 80% in recent years. This means that as the definition of autism expands, we will have a hard time distinguishing individuals with autism from the rest of the population.
Three of the criteria used in the diagnosis of autism are related to socialization. Back then, one of the signs of autism was not being interested in other people. Nowadays, this has been replaced by “having fewer friends than other people”.
Although the idea that individuals with autism are not “abnormal” but rather a “diversity within the human population” is generally accepted, it is possible that the over-ordinaryization of the problems brought about by autism will do more harm than good for those with autism. For example, some researchers have recently begun to question whether autism is not a medical condition and therefore medical treatment is necessary. This situation is found to be problematic and restrictive by other physicians who consider autism to be a treatable condition.
If the definition of autism becomes too commonplace and is not seen as a problem, autism research may have difficulty in determining the help that should be given to these people. This may be one of the reasons why a remarkable breakthrough has not been made in autism research in the last 10 years.
How Does the Awareness Contribute to the Prevalence Rate of Autism?
Over the past decades, awareness of autism spectrum disorder has been increased. That increase is not mild. It is very obvious. And as a result, it has contributed to an increase in the prevalence rate of autism.
There are some main reasons in order to raise awareness and be aware of what autism is and its symptoms. These reasons could be living in urban and big cities, good medical care, and easy access to medical care, and educated parents. If people are more aware of the symptoms, they are more okay with having someone with autism around them. And, if people are more aware of the symptoms, those individuals with autism are more likely to get a diagnosis earlier.
Early diagnosis gives them an opportunity to get specialized services, special education, and a good treatment plan. This opportunity is beneficial for both parties, for both children themselves and their pediatricians. Pediatricians would be more helpful in this case. They can make a good treatment and therapy plan for them.
Moreover, according to DSM-5, the overlap is acceptable. Because of this reason, children get a more accurate diagnosis. This accurate diagnosis leads them to take a good treatment plan. For example, before children didn’t get ADHD and Autism diagnosis at the same time, however, in today’s world, it is highly acceptable. According to DSM-5, it is possible to get multiple diagnoses based on their developmental delay. After these diagnostic criteria, increasing in prevalence rate has been observed all over the world, not only in the US.
The awareness has arisen, criteria have been broadened, the population all over the world is more crowded, there are more educated people and biological changes are happening over the last decades. And, all of them contribute to the prevalence rate of autism spectrum disorder.
Does Technology Affect the Prevalence Rate of Autism?
The family whose child got the diagnosis should say, “My child was born like this, or yes, my child was diagnosed with autism, we should be strong and do something as soon as possible. If education is needed, education should be started immediately.”
As a parent, if you prolong the process of accepting the event, you will suffer a huge loss. Because of autism, the first period called 0-3 years is very critical. While the process becomes much more difficult after the ages of 5-6-7, the positive reaction of 22-23 months old children to education is much more and beautiful. Now we’re talking about a situation out of 56 in proportion. So it’s not incredible or distant to any of us. We will all become parents in the future, or we have become. This is a disorder that starts with a social communication problem, shifts towards autism or expands the population, such as being born with autism directly.
There are many children who are not born with autism and who show symptoms of autism. Unfortunately, three things called television, tablet and phone caused children to experience incredible social interaction problems. In the simplest way, for example, you come across a child, you ask what your name is and you don’t even get an answer. Or you say that I have an object in my hand, follow it, and he or she does not. When you say look at me, he or she doesn’t look at you. At this point, you realize that even if the child was not born with autism, he/she started to show symptoms like autism.
Do not think that autism will necessarily be born congenitally. If the family does not care about the child, the child will only watch cartoons or if he/she only has a phone contact, then the symptoms of autism may begin to appear after 1-1.5 years. It may not be very severe autism, but the child has problems communicating socially. He cannot play games; when you give a toy to his hand, he cannot functionally play with it; and he cannot respond to your gestures and facial expressions.
If the child is already born with innate autistic features, there is no other way than to accept it and trying everything for the child’s education. The family needs to motivate themselves in some way, start treatment, and continue patiently.
But on the other hand, if you have a child who does not have autism, that is not born with autistic features, if he spends a lot of time in front of television, tablet, or computer and starts to show autism features after a while, you will be more regretful as a parent. Television, telephone, a computer should not be in the daily life of children between 0-3. The child must fully communicate with his family, friends, relatives. If this happens, there will be no problem.
There is also a situation in which people risk this incident by saying “this has not been the case with his child”. So his child may not have this situation, but that doesn’t mean that he won’t be in anyone else. According to experts, such situations began to appear very often.
Families coming to the doctor with complaints such as “When we say her name, he does not turn to us, does not look at us, does not communicate, does not speak.” When education is given for 6 months or 1 year, the child gets rid of these features that are autism-like. Why? Because the negativities that cause this situation are eliminated and education is started.
At the same time, experts think that the increasing ratio of nuclear families is also effective on this issue. In other words, children do not grow, play, or communicate with five or ten people as before. Only mother, father, and child are at home. In this case, too, the number of people the child communicates with is very small. Maybe science doesn’t focus on that right now. This event remains a bit more cultural, but after a while, this will become a matter of concern.
Some miraculous methods, such as food, diets, oxygen tents, animal therapies, music-drama, and theories have been made to suggest that autism can be controlled by eating. Mothers and fathers also believe them. Unfortunately, there are no miraculous therapies. There are different therapies and helps but it is impossible to cure autism at once.
Due to the nature of autism spectrum disorder, it is a complex, multifactorial, and high inherited disease group and its frequency is increasing all over the world due to the reasons explained above. Currently, there is no effective drug treatment for the main clinical picture of autism. Along with the early diagnosis, intensive education programs specific to individuals and specific to autism are the most effective treatment methods available. However, while raising awareness about the disease in society, it should be emphasized that this information should be at the level of scientific evidence.
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