What’s with the rapid rise in autism?

Is the rise in autism due to better diagnosis? Heightened awareness? Or is there a genuine increase in incidence? As a Speech-Language Pathologist, I’m often asked those sort of questions. When we don’t know what causes autism, these can be difficult questions to answer. So it was good to read a press release about an expert doing new research on the rise in the incidence of autism.

The press release reports that Professor Dorothy Bishop, a Welcome Trust Principal Research Fellow at the University of Oxford, led a study revisiting 38 adults who had been diagnosed with developmental language disorders as children. These adults are now between the ages of 15 and 31, and none of them had been given an autism diagnosis.

Professor Bishop and colleagues looked at whether they now met current diagnostic criteria for autistic spectrum disorders — either through reports of their childhood behavior or on the basis of their current behavior.

These were children that people were saying were not autistic in the 1980s, but when we talk to their parents now about what they were like as children, it’s clear that they would be classified as autistic now. Criteria for diagnosing autism were much more stringent in the 1980s than nowadays and a child wouldn’t be classed as autistic unless he or she was very severe. Now, children are being identified who have more subtle characteristics and who could in the past easily have been missed.

Professor Bishop cautions against using the results to suggest that the prevalence of autism is not genuinely rising. She states:

We can’t say that genuine cases of autism are not on the increase as the numbers in our study are very small. However, this is the only study to date where direct evidence has been found of people who would have had a different diagnosis today than they were given fifteen or twenty years ago.

Results will be published this month in the Journal of Developmental Medicine & Child Neurology.


Comments may not reflect Easterseals' policies or positions.

Please read our community guidelines when posting comments.

  1. Beth Finke Says:

    Helen, thank you for your interest. You can find a directory of camps and recreation sites available for adults and children with disabilities here:


  2. helen patterson Says:

    We would. Love to talk with someone about summer camp for bryan we have never thought about it until i read this on the easter seals web padge

  3. Gary Says:

    I absolutely believe autism is being misdiagnosed today. I’ve seen way too many children diagnosed with autism who are clearly not autistic. It seems there is an epidemic of overdiagnosing. It may come from a shared professional misunderstanding of what classic autism is. The last straw for me was a child that came into our office that was labeled severely autistic and had a full conversation with everyone and read a book, as if he were just a regular kid. I couldn’t believe it. His mother was actually excited and happy about his autism. Mothers of real autistic children don’t seem to be happy about the diagnosis.

  4. fred medaris Says:

    Yes, its time to act. Its time to start to realize that there are hundreds of thousands, if not more, misdiagnoses of autism, especially among females. Hans Asperger and Leo Kanner were the men who coined autism. They estimated about 1 in 4-6,000 births were autistic and that it was exclusively male. Lets hold these men as experts. Autism occurs in the fetus. It is solely biological. There is no reason for an increase as there is “nothing new under the sun”, says Solomon in Ecclesiastes.
    Comorbid means two disorders are not mutually exclusive in their symptoms. Did you know some symptoms of bipolar, ADHD , Pervasive DD, GAO, and depression are also symptoms of autism? Just because a female has a learning disability does not mean she is autistic. Just because a child is very shy, does not mean it is autistic. Yes, its time to act and reserve autistic diagnoses to those who have the exclusive classical symptoms of it.

  5. Lisa Tate Says:

    What an interesting point to consider. Thanks for your comment and the food for thought!

  6. Joe Says:

    This is a very interesting posting. It leads one to wonder what the results would be if the same study were targeted at specific focus groups, e.g. artists, educators, technical professionals, craftspeople, etc. i.e. Did the undiagnosed autism predispose those individuals to particular career paths?


  7. Shireen Connor Says:

    Very well-written and informative! This definitely helps clear up the picture. Thanks Lisa.

  8. Elise Says:

    You raise a really good point. I can think of at least two people in my family who would have been diagnosed with autism in the ’80’s if the same criteria had been used then as it is now. It’s something important for all of us to consider as people become more aware of the diagnosis and the early treatment options that are currently available.

  9. Kevin Coleman Says:

    Thanks for sharing. The development of an autism spectrum drives some of the increase I’m sure. However, the awareness factors are important to identify early intervention opportunities. Great information.

  10. Debbie Says:

    Definitely food for thought. Research like this can lead to a better understanding of the different variations in the spectrum. The rise, no matter what the cause, has brought more awareness to the disorder. Research and services will benefit, and people, including families, affected by Autism will have increased access to resources and services.

    Thanks for the spotlight on this important research. I might have missed it otherwise!

  11. Jessica Says:

    That’s so interesting. It’s also a good reminder that even though it may have been called many different things, autism has been around for a long time.

  12. Tom Says:

    Very interesting study. Thanks for keeping us informed!

Leave a Reply