No, Autism Rates Are Not Seeing 'Tremendous Increases'

Heather Finn
Photo credit: Alex Wong / Getty

From Dr. Oz The Good Life

On Tuesday morning, President Donald Trump and his newly confirmed Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, attended a Parent-Teacher Conference Listening Session at the White House. During the session, the president spoke with educators about disadvantaged students, charter schools, jobs in education, and the "tremendous increases" in the number of U.S. children who are on the autism spectrum.

...One of those things is not like the others. Yes, as appears to be his wont, the president has yet again made an incredibly exaggerated claim that cannot be backed up by any reliable data. Just to be sure, let's take a quick look at the actual facts:

Those who claim autism is becoming increasingly prevalent (think: notorious anti-vaxxers Andrew Wakefield and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.) often point to a dramatic increase in reported autism cases since the 1990s.

That's sort of accurate: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about one in 150 U.S. children had an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) diagnosis in 2000 versus about one in 68 children in 2012.

But that conveniently ignores some very important points - most notably the whole "reported" part, autism expert and author of NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity Steve Silberman told Science of Us. The increases since the '90s have more to do with improved awareness of ASD and how to diagnose it, which makes sense when you think about it: When doctors better understand a condition and how to recognize its symptoms, patients who always had the condition but had previously gone undiagnosed are finally included.

Silberman continued:

There's no consensus as to whether or not there's been any significant increase in the actual prevalence of autism, period. The real debate is whether or not there has been a small increase, and there are a number of factors that could play a role in that small increase. For instance, it's well established that older parents have more autistic kids and people are waiting longer to get married and have kids now, so there may be a small increase there. Some people claim that there are some environmental factors - notably, not vaccines - that may be contributing to a small increase. But the consensus is that there has been no huge, startling, 'horrible,' as Trump said, increase in autism. And the CDC estimate has been flat for a couple of years, just as they expected it to be, because the major source of the increase that started in the 1990s was broadened diagnostic criteria and much more public awareness of what autism looks like.

Many studies support this, including a January 2015 study in JAMA Pediatrics that found changes in diagnostic criteria and methods were responsible for similar increases in autism rates in Denmark, and an October 2013 study in Social Science and Medicine that found children with autism tended to "cluster" around areas with better access to diagnostic and treatment services.

Not to mention that the number of reported ASD cases has remained steady at 1 in 68 children since 2010, according to the CDC, which gathered data on 8-year-old children in 11 U.S. communities in 2012 and compared it to similar data collected in 2010. Ultimately, the CDC found that the autism rate only notably increased in two of the 11 communities (those in Wisconsin and New Jersey), while the overall autism rate remained the same.

So while it's accurate to say that there's been an increase in reported cases of ASD in American children over the past few decades, that doesn't mean ASD is spreading across the country at unprecedented rates. If anything, it means methods for recognizing and reporting ASD are improving, which means more children can receive the treatment and attention they need.

The moral of the story? Trump's claim that autism rates are increasing tremendously isn't just misleading, it's incorrect. And especially when it comes to our children's health, it's vital that we always seek out the truth.

[h/t Science of Us]