A complicated relationship exists between statistics and the real world they’re supposed to represent. The numbers tracking autism spectrum disorder (ASD) illustrate this phenomenon well.
Both the United States and Canada have recorded a steady rise in the neurodevelopmental condition, with rates roughly doubling over the first decade of the millennium-to the point where it’s now estimated that one or two out of every 100 people are affected by ASD. This spike has inspired many concerned headlines, but it’s up for debate whether there has been an increase in actual cases or just in the number of them that are diagnosed.
In 2013, the ASD label was adopted to encompass three separate diagnoses: autism, Asperger syndrome and “pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified.” These conditions were folded together because the line separating them was fuzzy and because they shared a common set of symptoms. The severity of those symptoms can vary greatly; in general, though, people with ASD demonstrate impairments in social interactions and communication, and restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviour.
There is more awareness of ASD today than in previous decades. So it stands to reason that parents may be more likely to seek diagnoses for kids who might once have been considered eccentric or socially inept. Still, in the words of one 2013 study based on data from the National Epidemiologic Database for the Study of Autism in Canada, “we cannot rule out the possibility of a true increase in incidence.”
We still aren’t sure what causes ASD. Researchers have identified genes that may affect the way the brain develops; and an association with pregnancy complications suggests ASD might arise from an occurrence in the womb-for instance, the exposure of the fetus to unusual hormone levels in amniotic fluid.
Nevertheless, the very fact that diagnoses are on the rise means that support services will need to ramp up. Autism Nova Scotia, for example, launched an eCampus last year to deliver basic training to new respite workers, who provide breaks to primary caregivers of people with autism. Still, there’s a ways to go before all those affected have access to the support they need.
Early Red Flags Checklist
Although ASD has no known cure and no single treatment is guaranteed to help everyone, early intervention is believed to lead to the most positive outcomes for people on the spectrum. None of these signs necessarily point to ASD, but if you notice any of them, it may be worth consulting a doctor.
A child with ASD might:
- Not respond to their name by 12 months
- Not point at objects to show interest (e.g., gesturing at an airplane flying overhead) by 14 months
- Be disinterested in imaginative play (e.g., pretending to feed a doll) by 18 months
- Avoid eye contact and want to be alone much of the time
- Have delayed speech and language skills
- Repeat words or phrases over and over (echolalia)
- Get upset by minor changes to routine or surroundings
- Have unusual reactions to the way things sound, smell, taste, look or feel