Chief Science Correspondent
Autism spectrum disorder has become a topic of remarkably increased interest over the past decade.
The neurodevelopmental condition is characterized by social and communicative impairment, and can span a range of severities and symptoms. Scientists believe this condition stems at least partially from genetic factors. However, no one is certain what exactly causes autism. This uncertainty has partially led many to blame a variety of human-caused factors, including genetically modified crops and vaccines.
These arguments often stem from the fact that recent increases in autism cases in the U.S. correlate to other outside factors, but fail to provide a scientific mechanism between the correlation. This is very dangerous territory to cross, because correlation data can appear very appealing. But raw correlation data rarely recounts the entire story.
First, education about autism has most likely led to more children being evaluated and diagnosed, particularly in regards to milder cases that may have otherwise gone undocumented, or mischaracterized. Because autism is such a broad disorder, documenting and characterizing this condition has been an extensive process.
Additionally, Doheny points out that changes in autism diagnoses have assigned this term to many children who otherwise would have been simply labeled as mentally disabled. It is easy to forget how recent mental health research really is. As an extreme example, any social abnormality led to immediate committal to an insane asylum in the 1880s. And, despite having been characterized for centuries, schizophrenia medical treatments were not approved until 1954.
Characterization of mental health has been an ongoing historical process. And so it makes sense that as doctors begin to better understand autism that more children will be diagnosed.
Doheny also raises an interesting point that is rarely used in autism discussions: that increasing autism rates could potentially be an indirect result of couples choosing to have children at older ages, as the mother's age has been linked to increased risk of the disorder. While this observation would certainly warrant further research for verification, it was an interesting point that demonstrates how misleading certain supposedly clear trends can actually be.
But the media primarily controls most of our view of that research. And that's where things can become complicated. For instance, a 2012 study by Condon et al. found that the supposed increase in populations of jellyfish was actually perpetuated by increased jellyfish population reporting through the media. And as the availability of online content increases, our views of the world and science research can become skewed.
A Google search for autism increase results yielded just over 4.1 million pages from 2014. This number has increased dramatically since 2012, but this past year showed the largest number of results by far.
The moral of this story is that it is important to be aware of the information we consume in context of the larger picture. Autism hysteria is dangerous because it has driven many well-meaning parents away from childhood vaccinations in an effort to protect their child from a risk that has no actual basis in scientific credibility.