The Autism Epidemic Myth
The autism epidemic: fact or fiction?
Burton, L. J. (2010). An interactive approach to writing essays and research reports in
psychology (3rd ed.). Brisbane: John Wiley.
Gernsbacher, M. A., Dawson, M., & Goldsmith, H. H. (2005). Three reasons not to
believe in an autism epidemic. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 14, 55-
- doi: 10.1111/j.0963-7214.2005.00334.x
Hertz-Picciotto, I, & Delwiche, L. (2009). The rise in autism and the role of age at
diagnosis. Epidemiology, 20, 84-90. doi: 10.1097/EDE.0b013e3181902d15
Honda, H., Shimizu, Y., & Rutter, M. (2005). No effect of MMR withdrawal on the
incidence of autism: A total population study. Journal of Child Psychology and
Psychiatry, 46, 572–579. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-7610.2005.01425.x
Lilienfeld, S.O., Lynn, S.J., Namy, L.L., Woolf, N.J., Jamieson, G., Marks, A., &
Slaughter, V. (2015). Psychology: From inquiry to understanding (2nd ed.).
Melbourne: Pearson Australia.
After completing this essay assignment you should be able to:
• • describe the major diagnostic features associated with autism;
• • outline the evidence for and against the proposition that there is a
dramatic worldwide increase in the prevalence of autism;
• • critically evaluate psychological literature;
• • adhere to APA writing style for essays in Psychology.
The past two decades have seen a dramatic increase in the numbers of
children being diagnosed with autism. Not surprisingly, researchers have
sought to find the underlying cause or causes of this phenomenon. One line
of inquiry is a purported connection between childhood vaccinations and
autism. Others have suggested that autism diagnoses appear to have
increased because of more relaxed diagnostic criteria and/or more stringent
reporting requirements. Your task is to evaluate the evidence provided to
you and write a cogent essay in APA style to present your statement of the
issues and your conclusions.
What is required?
A 1,200-word essay written in APA style conforming to the standards set out in
Burton (2010) – Title page, Abstract, Essay, References. The word limit starts at the
first word of the Abstract and ends with the last word of the essay (i.e., it does not
include the Reference list).
Using only the resources listed above, your essay must:
a) describe autism
b) outline the historical development of the so-called autism epidemic
c) describe and critically review the various explanations that have been put forward
to explain the autism epidemic
d) outline your conclusions as to which, if any, of the potential causes provides the
- Read everything you can find on autism in your Lilienfeld et al. textbook.
- Read each of the three prescribed articles. At this early stage in your studies,
not expect you to understand all the statistical information provided in these
articles. However, you should be able to grasp the gist of the studies and the
findings and to describe these.
- Synthesise the literature – that is, integrate the various ideas and information
contained in all the readings to make a coherent argument discussing the key
issues and leading to a conclusion addressing the essay question.
- Carefully follow the recommendations of Burton (2010) for essay writing in
A concise summary (ideally in less than 150 words) introducing the topic of interest,
outlining the key components and progression of your argument, and summarising
Critical thinking and Review of literature provided (65%)
Review the key evidence and arguments from the prescribed articles as you need,
but please do not cite articles beyond these for this essay. Produce a synthesis of the
literature provided to you. Integrate and interpret evidence, theory, and explanation
to directly address the essay question. What are the strengths and limitations of the
research you have read? How strong is the conclusion you argue for? Is the
argument coherent? Are points well substantiated with evidence from the
Clarity of written expression (15%)
Write clearly and concisely. Follow guidelines in Chapter 4 of Burton (2010). The
essay should flow logically from one idea to the next.
Adherence to APA style (15%)
Title page (5%) – Set out in APA style – see Burton (2010). Also include “word count”
in bottom left hand corner.
In-text citations (5%) – See Burton (2010) Chapter 6. Reference list (5%) – See Burton
(2010) Chapter 7.
Autism is a developmental disorder that exhibits a deficiency in three main areas: communication, social skills, and repetitive behaviors, which should have occurred before the age of 36 months. According to current figures, there are 20 to 80 people in every 1000 individuals with this disorder. The number of people diagnosed with autism has been increasing gradually in the recent decades. This increase has led to people describing this phenomenon as an autism epidemic. But how true or false is this assessment? It is quite difficult to come up with a convincing and comprehensive conclusion as to why this statement is either fact or fiction. However, based on the available statistical and scientific data it is quite safe to conclude that the autism epidemic is nothing short of fiction. This paper will address some of the theories that have fueled the autism epidemic ranging from misconstrued information, changing the diagnosis of autism, to the age at which diagnosis is made.
Debunking the Autism Epidemic Myth
The first theory on autism is a based on the changing diagnosis of autism. For a start, autism is believed to have been in existence since the origin of human societies. However, the symptoms and diagnosis for one to be considered autistic have changed significantly over the years. Autism is identified due to a difference in social communication, interactions and focused interests. This categorization only became active in the 1940’s. In retrospect, this means that many individuals who exhibited these symptoms before 1940 were not described as being autistic. While this categorization was developed in the 1940’s, it was only incorporated by the American psychiatric practitioners in 1980. Hence, the only available data for autism were from particular researchers or individual clinicians. With the widening bracket of individuals fitting this categorization, it is no coincidence that the number of cases of autism has increased gradually. More changes in the criteria for autism have been observed since 1980. The 1980 categorization had only six different categories; the 1994 entry offers 16 different criteria, requiring only half of these criteria for an individual to be considered autistic.
Moreover, there have been significant changes in the direction taken by psychological science which is a fundamental basis for diagnosing autism. 1980 entry had mandatory criteria stating that “if speech is present, peculiar speech patterns such as immediate and delayed echolalia, metaphorical language, and a pronominal reversal (Gernsbacher, Dawson, & Goldsmith, 2005). This diagnosis was later changed to difficulty “sustaining a conversation”. While there appears to be little or no significance in this change, there is an immense difference in people fitting the criteria of 1994. This new diagnosis translates to even more individuals being incorrectly diagnosed with autism.
In the United States, Federal Individuals with Disabilities and Education Act is mandated to ensure that children who have known disabilities have access to free, appropriate education and a well-designed program to fit each individual child. Schools have the duty to communicate this information to the federal Department. This data has been the most misleading set of information regarding autism. For instance, in 2003, the Autism Society of America sent a text to all its members stating that autism cases had increased by an alarming 1,354% in the period between 1991 t0 2001. This ‘finding’ was astounding and sent shockwaves throughout the country. However, this misconstrued piece of information failed to note that there was no child count of children with autism before 1992. Even after 1992, the use of the autism category was still optional. More options would later be included in the autism criteria, and thus, the cases of autism cases continued to rise. This is similar to what happens in the market when a new product is launched. It will translate to a steady increase in individuals owning the product. As such, this type of misconstrued information, which is not based on statistical evidence, further fuels the autism epidemic belief.
Another theory which has been put forward to explain the autism epidemic is based on the increased cases following the introduction of Measles, Mumps, and Rubella (MMR) vaccine in the UK and USA. This theory suggests that the autism epidemic is fuelled by the increase in some autism spectrum disorders (ASD). While many people believe in this theory, the possibility of the growth being coincidental has not been discarded. One can, however, look at a study carried out in the circumstances of the Japanese MMR vaccination program. The study was conducted between 1988 t0 1996 to show cumulative incidences of ASD before and after the MMR program. The conclusion of the study did not point out the vaccination program as contributing to the rise in autism cases. Following this finding, the perceived autism epidemic is not true, and even withdrawal of the MMR in countries where it is administered would not reduce the steady rise in autism cases. (Honda, Shimizu, & Rutter, 2005)
The above are not the only theories put forward to explain the autism epidemic. One such theory is the age at which diagnosis is made. A study was carried out in California to show if there was any relation between the rising cases of autism and the age of diagnosis. The study, conducted between 1990 and 2006, revealed that autism cases rose throughout in children. Changing the age at which diagnosis occurred, increased prevalence of autism by 12%. The conclusion was that while the age at diagnosis could explain the increases, other factors such as differential migration and changes in diagnostic criteria needed to be put in perspective. Hence, the study was unable to explain clearly the steady increase in autism cases.
Based on the above theories, it is quite clear that no single approach can conclusively point out the cause of the increase in autism cases. One indisputable fact though is that autism is on a gradual increase. However, the above theories are just a glimpse into how the condition remains a challenge to scientists and psychologists alike. So far, the most convincing argument as to why the autism epidemic is still growing is the change in diagnosis of the condition. As long as the criteria for autism diagnosis keep changing, the more the idea of there being an autism epidemic will persist. This underlying idea is not helped by the misconstrued information that is passed on by schools to the government departments who use this information to generate data which the layman will take as absolute truth. In conclusion, the autism epidemic is nothing but fiction but will remain as truth to most individuals who gladly accept the theories put forward as absolute fact.
Gernsbacher, M., Dawson, M., & Goldsmith, H. (2005). Three Reasons Not to Believe in an Autism Epidemic. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 55-58.
Hertz-Picciotto, I., & Delwiche, L. (2009). The rise in autism and the role of age at. Epidemiology, 20, 84-90.
Honda, H., Shimizu, Y., & Rutter, M. (2005). No effect of MMR withdrawal on the incidence of autism: a total population study. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 572-579.
Lilienfeld, S., Lynn, S., Namy, L., Jamieson, G., Marks, A., & Slaughter, V. (2015 ). Psychology: From inquiry to understanding (2nd ed). Melbourne: Pearson Australia.