A 30% increase in autism in two years? Oh, really?

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Screen Shot 2014-03-28 at 2.03.13 PMA good part of the blame for the appalling lack of scientific knowledge in this country falls squarely on the press. This is something we deal with constantly at ACSH: Headlines that not only don t match the content of the subsequent article, but often contradict it.

It would be hard to find a better example than the breathless coverage of a CDC report which, on the surface, seems to suggest that there has been a huge increase in the prevalence of autism in the two year period 2010-2012.

If you really think about it, is it even feasible that there was actually a 30 percent increase in autism in two years? Because if this were true, pretty much every child would be autistic within a decade or two. No there is something else going on, and it has nothing to do with any real change in autism. Rather, it s a diagnosis issue.

But, says ACSH s Dr. Josh Bloom I d be willing to bet both of my dollars that half the people who glance at these headlines will simply conclude that, for whatever reason, the autism epidemic is skyrocketing. And this will become fact, and spread all over the internet, just like countess numbers of other misleading headlines.

Dr. Bloom demonstrates below exactly what happens when no one is paying attention to what is really going on.

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He explains, If you simply look at this graph, you would conclude that the incidence of prostate cancer doubled between 1987 and 1992. Does this pass the sniff test? No way. Something else must have been going on.

And indeed there was. The answer is the PSA test, which was approved by the FDA in... 1986. Hmm. Coincidence? No way. This apparent spike in prostate cancer is an artifact created by the new test. The new PSA test simply uncovered (often indolent) prostate cancers that no one would have known about before. No there were not twice the number of prostate cancers over a five-year period.

What is going on with autism is similar. It is intuitively obvious that autism is not increasing by 30 percent every two years. It must simply be a change in other factors.

This is explained by Dr. Coleen Boyle, the director of the CDC's National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities, "We look at all of the characteristics of autism,...So we look at the age in which they're identified. We look at their earliest diagnosis. We look at co-occurring conditions that these children might have, other developmental disabilities, whether or not they have intellectual disability, so essentially their IQ."

She continues, The study found nearly half of children with an autism spectrum disorder have average or above-average intellectual ability -- an IQ above 85 -- compared with one-third of children a decade ago. The report is not designed to say why more children are being diagnosed with autism. But she believes increased awareness in identifying and diagnosing children contributes to the higher numbers.

In other words, because of closer scrutiny, more autistic children are being diagnosed with the disorder some of which had been missed in the past.

Dr. Bloom comments, Yet, I doubt that anti-chemical activists, desperate to blame something else to promote their agenda, will miss an opportunity to make (mis)use of this just like the anti-vaccination crowd blamed mercury (wasn t true), then the vaccines themselves (also not true) for autism.

And, there is another autism story in the news today. According to a study conducted at the University of California, San Diego, autism begins during pregnancy.

The intriguing study was published online Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Dr. Rich Stoner and colleagues from UCSD and other authors from the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle come up with some fascinating findings.

The group actually identified a mechanism of abnormal gene activity and how it relates to abnormal development during pregnancy by preventing proper brain development in the fetus.

They maintain that the frontal and temporal cortex, parts of the brain that affect social skills (frontal) and language skills (temporal) are disrupted during development of the brain of the fetus, and the data are intriguing.

When the normal organization of the cortex was disrupted, as determined by analysis of patches of brain samples from deceased children with autism, 10 of 11 children were found to have this malformation. Conversely, when samples from deceased non autistic children were analyzed this same disruption was not found in 10 of 11 samples.

ACSH s Gilbert Ross comments, This is a very small study. We must face the facts: autism is a devastating condition, or group of conditions, and parents hearing that diagnosis become angry and frustrated, seeking (most importantly) some remedy. Failing that since there is none they often seek some cause upon which to vent their anger. Activists of every stripe, some described by Dr. Bloom here, seek to exploit this quite understandable emotional reaction, as all-too-often do the sensation-seeking media. If we here at ACSH were of that bent, we would be crowing about how this study somehow proves that ASDs are developed in the womb, thus eliminating environmental causes more or less entirely. We do of course encourage further such investigations, whose results in this instance are intriguing but nothing more. Given the conglomeration of manifestations of autism, I believe it s highly unlikely that one cause will be found, any more than the cause of cancer will be. Let s all just stay tuned as sound science homes in on more such data.