Autism: A Disorder on the Rise

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Although we are still unsure what causes autism, scientists agree that a range of genetic and environmental factors are involved.

The UK’s National Autistic Society defines autism as, “a lifelong developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with, and relates to, other people.”

While those who suffer from autism share certain similar symptoms, it is a disorder that impacts the life of sufferers in a vast swath of different ways.

Research indicates that around 15-20% of autistic children develop the disorder as a result of a genetic mutation. The chances of parents having another autistic child, after giving birth to a first, is almost 20%, and that risk increases to 32% if parents conceive two autistic children.

Studies, furthermore, indicate that environmental pollution could be some of the environmental factors to blame for the rapid increase in the number of diagnosed cases of autism. Suspected substances include lead, methylmercury and some medications, such as a seizure treatment called valproic acid.

Number of Cases Increasing

Autism is a disorder that is soaring in prevalence among children. In the United Kingdom, for example, over the last five years, the number of autistic schoolchildren has increased from 39,465 to 61,570.

To put these figures into perspective, data from the UK Department of Education highlights that one in every 200 schoolchildren was diagnosed as autistic in 2006, while that figure is now one in 125.

This rise in diagnoses is not confined to the UK. In the United States, too, a 2012 report by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention indicated that the prevalence of the disorder increased by 23%, from 2006 to 2008.

Experts admit to being baffled by this astronomical trend. Research has yet to produce a complete set of compelling causal factors to explain the rise.

At the Children’s Environmental Health Centre’s December 2010 symposium, “Exploring the Environmental Causes of Autism and Learning Disabilities,” however, a comprehensive list of the ten most likely environmental and chemical causes of autism was compiled. The list included such modern concoctions as organophosphate and organochlorine pesticides, automotive exhaust fumes and chemicals used for fire proofing everyday items.

In addition to these manmade creations, which go some way to explaining the rise in the number of people with autism, many sceptics believe that the rise can be explained merely by the broadening of the definition of what autism is, as well as an advance in doctors’ understanding of the disorder, making it easier to diagnose.

The Future Is Unclear

While sceptics may think a simple widening of the net is to blame, along with ease in diagnosis, Mark Roithmayr, president of Autism Speaks, asserts that, “there is a great unknown. Something is going on here, and we don’t know what.”

The discussion and debate continues to rage regarding a plausible explanation for the rise in the prevalence of autism. Research is ongoing to provide further insight, such that being undertaken by four major U.S. universities, following 1,200 mothers of autistic children, who are planning a second child. But until such a time as compelling data is provided, conjecture remains the norm.

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