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With the astonishing news that the incidence rate of autism in the U.S. has risen (from one child in 150 to one in 91), it seems like a good time to answer one of my most asked questions:

"Why are so many kids diagnosed autistic?"

Here are three thoughts:

First, I (and many others) believe autism is a syndrome. Meaning it could be several disorders defined by the same set of traits. So, if a child doesn't interact, has low eye contact and stims a lot, he is nearly always diagnosed autistic. But there may be different unknown disorders that have these same symptoms, and we currently call all of these disorders autism. Even if we were to understand why one person is autistic, it may not help us to understand why others are. There may be different reasons why they flap their hands in front of their face, line up objects, etc.

If this is so, then a rise in any one of these disorders might be responsible for the rise in autism.

Second, ten years ago physicians might not label a child autistic even though they suspected he was, but these days autism is so mainstream that it has become ‘cool' for nuero-typical adults to claim that they or others are ‘a little bit Aspergers.' As a result of this new cultural acceptance, doctors are much more willing to diagnose an autistic child correctly. The likely result of this is an uptick in the incidence rate.

Third, while both of those things are probably true, here's the theory I subscribe to: the world is much more toxic than it used to be. There are pollutants in the air, preservatives in our food, and who-knows-what in Diet Coke. I believe the rise in autism is a side effect of the less pure world we inhabit. It makes sense, at least to me: does anyone really think there's no impact from nuclear waste and/or Lemon Pledge?

What can be done about that? As many have found, it's hard to ask the world to stop moving and clean itself up. I believe we should focus on better treatment. I have seen many parents drop their children off to a special needs classroom and believe it is enough. It is not. In nearly every case, autistic children have to be worked with one-on-one to discover their true potential.

Contact Jonathan Levy at Jonathan@TenThingsAutism.com

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