York Times Editorial
20 October 2002
Mysterious Upsurge in Autism
A shocking report from California last week suggested that a large
increase in childhood autism in that state over the last 15 years
is a true epidemic, not a statistical mirage inflated by artificial
factors. If that judgment holds up after further analysis and research,
it raises disturbing questions about just why this brain-distorting
disease is on the rise and what can be done about it.
have known for some time that there seemed to be a big upsurge in
autism in California — a tripling in little more than a decade
of the number of children with profound autism receiving services
from the state. The state's Department of Developmental Services
found that the number of children with "full spectrum"
autism jumped from 2,778 in 1987 to 10,360 in 1998 and continued
to rise thereafter. That was bad news indeed given that autism is
a crippling brain disorder that often leaves its victims unable
to speak, rocking compulsively, and unable to form social relationships
or behave normally in everyday life.
week's report, commissioned by the California Legislature and conducted
by researchers at the University of California at Davis, concluded
that the upsurge could not be explained away by demographics, changes
in the way autism is diagnosed or increased migration of autistic
children into California. But whether the study looked hard enough
for all possible explanations will need to be addressed when outside
experts have a chance to review the findings. One possible weakness
is that the study dealt only with autistic children receiving services
from the state's regional centers. It did not examine whether parents
and professionals are referring more children with autism to the
centers today than in the past.
self-examination has underscored the surprising lack of information
about the prevalence of this relatively rare brain disorder elsewhere
in the nation. Studies carried out by the federal Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention in recent years found that the number of
cases in metropolitan Atlanta and in one New Jersey township were
significantly higher than previous estimates of prevalence would
suggest. But nobody knows for sure what the nationwide trends are.
The C.D.C. is financing studies in a dozen other states to determine
the prevalence there.
all experts agree that genetics play an important role in autism,
but genes don't propagate fast enough to cause a sharp change in
a decade. Some experts believe that environmental factors can trigger
autism in people with susceptible genes, with suspicion falling
at various times on vaccines, infections, heavy metals and other
environmental insults. The evidence, unfortunately, is sparse. It
could take years of study to unravel the widening mystery of autism.