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Unformatted text preview: Three Reasons Not to Believe in an Autism Epidemic Morton Ann Gernsbacher, 1 Michelle Dawson, 2 and H. Hill Goldsmith 1 1 University of Wisconsin-Madison and 2 University of Montreal, Montreal, Quebec, Canada ABSTRACT According to some lay groups, the nation is experiencing an autism epidemica rapid escalation in the prevalence of autism for unknown reasons. However, no sound scientific evidence indicates that the increasing number of diagnosed cases of autism arises from anything other than purposely broadened diagnostic criteria, cou- pled with deliberately greater public awareness and in- tentionally improved case finding. Why is the public perception so disconnected from the scientific evidence? In this article we review three primary sources of misun- derstanding: lack of awareness about the changing diag- nostic criteria, uncritical acceptance of a conclusion illogically drawn in a California-based study, and inat- tention to a crucial feature of the child count data re- ported annually by the U.S. Department of Education. KEYWORDS autism; epidemiology; epidemic If you have learned anything about autism lately from the popular media, you most likely have learnederroneously that there is a mysterious upsurge in the prevalence of autism ( New York Times , October 20, 2002, Section 4, p. 10), creating a baffling . . . outbreak (CBSnews.com, October 18, 2002), in which new cases are exploding in number ( Time , May 6, 2002, p. 48), and no one knows why ( USA Today , May 17, 2004, p. 8D). At least a handful of U.S. Congress members decree on their .gov Web sites that the nation is facing an autism epidemic. Several national media have erroneously concluded that a set of data from California confirms the autism epidemic, and the largest autism-advocacy organization in the world has ex- pressed alarm over astronomical percentage increases in the number of autistic children served in the public schools since 1992. However, no sound scientific evidence indicates that the increase in the number of diagnosed cases of autism arises from anything other than intentionally broadened diagnostic criteria, coupled with deliberately greater public awareness and con- scientiously improved case finding. How did public perception become so misaligned from scientific evidence? In this article, we review three major sources of misunderstanding. THE CHANGING DIAGNOSIS OF AUTISM The phenomenon of autism has existed most likely since the origins of human society. In retrospect, numerous historical figuresfor instance, the 18th-century wild boy of Ave- yronfit autism diagnostic criteria but were not so diagnosed in their day (Frith, 1989). Only in the 1940s did a constellation of differences in social interaction, communication, and focused interests come to be categorized by Leo Kanner as autism. However, another 40 years would elapse before American psychiatric practice incorporated criteria for autism into what...
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This note was uploaded on 02/17/2009 for the course PSYCH 2000 taught by Professor Domangue during the Fall '08 term at LSU.
- Fall '08