Autism Prevalence – Examining the Myths and Truths

May 24, 2018

SafeMinds interviews the New Jersey investigator for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) autism prevalence report of 1 in 59 children, examining the truths and myths behind the latest numbers from the Federal Government.

The big news for May was the release of new autism prevalence numbers from the Federal Government. The CDC study by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) found that 1 in 59 children have autism, up from the 1 in 68 they reported just two years ago. This alarming increase compelled SafeMinds to call for an emergency meeting with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Along with other autism organizations, SafeMinds is demanding a Federal Autism Strategic Plan that address the urgent crisis of autism.

To better understand the CDC study, SafeMinds Board Member Heidi Roger sat down with one of the principal investigators, Walter Zahorodny. Dr. Zahorodny runs the New Jersey CDC Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring (ADDM) network site. New Jersey is the longest running site in the ADDM network and has the highest reported prevalence. We wanted to ask what the new numbers really mean and whether we should be alarmed about the increase in the number of children with autism.

In this comprehensive interview, Dr. Zahorodny was kind enough to explain the truths and myths swirling around the CDC report. Read video transcript.

Some truths and myths you’ll learn:

Dr. Zahorodny describes autism as “an urgent public health concern” and is disappointed at the lack of alarm shown by the U.S. media over the new report. The CDC, he believes, minimizes the increase because it has no explanation as to the cause. Dr. Zahorodny suggests that “only by acknowledging the true scope of the problem can we help to make progress in providing the services or promoting the right research that might lead to answers about why this is occurring.”

This year, the CDC skipped holding a press conference as it has done in prior years when a new prevalence report is released. Some major media outlets didn’t reporting on the new study at all, for example The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times (which ran an article on autism in dogs). Some channels wrote superficial articles summarizing the CDC’s press statement without added insight. But there were a few good responses, including those from within the autism community.

US News & World Report dug a bit deeper on the reasons for the increase, identifying unknown environmental factors at work.

Autism Speaks created a live video going into depth on the implications of the numbers in terms of causation, services and costs. Some of the take-aways:

Autism Speaks’ chief science officer said, “I feel comfortable saying that there is a true increase in the prevalence of autism,” adding, “we really need to look at all the possibilities and understand why that might be.”

Dr. Manuel Casanova, neurologist and professor at the University of South Carolina, wrote in his blog Cortical Chauvinism that the increase in autism is real. He relates that his practice extends back to the 1970s and he rarely saw a case with autism. When he visits state institutions for adults with disabilities, he sees almost no older adults with autism.  All that has changed now, with the burgeoning growth in autism. “I think that our country is facing a health crisis in regards to autism,” he writes, and recommends a focus on prevention and research identifying environmental factors. Other institutions than the CDC should be tracking autism prevalence, he notes. “Ignorance kills and that is the state of knowledge as of present.”

SafeMinds agrees that the Federal Government’s response to autism has been both underwhelming, and harmful.

JOIN US!  If you are disappointed by the Federal Government’s lack of urgency toward to the autism epidemic, join the SafeMinds autism advocacy community, a purpose-driven network of change makers. Help create an accountable Federal Autism Strategic Plan that will make a real difference. One step at a time, one action at a time, leads to victory.

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