Penn State Researchers Say Increase In Autism Can Be Mostly Blamed On Semantics, A Look At Chaotic Data And Reclassification

A new study from Penn State claims that soaring autism rates are not the result of more American kids actually showing symptoms of autism. The new study states that 70 percent of the growth in autism cases is really just a matter of semantics. The autism researchers claim that the real reason for such a sharp increase in autism diagnoses between 2000 and 2010, at least, can actually be blamed on reclassification.

“We didn’t have a clear definition of what autism was until about the 1980s. Now we have a much broader definition. We’re much more aware of the symptoms of the autism — we’re aware it’s more of a spectrum,” Lindsay Chapman, a Certified Behavior Analyst, said. According to WHNT, the Penn State researchers say that increase in autism is not a cause for concern.

Chapman says that autism, as a diagnosis, has been broadened also. Between broadening what factors can be used to diagnosis autism and reclassifying intellectual disabilities (formerly known as mental retardation) as autism, the sharp increase can be easily explained, she says.

“These children are being serviced in school more; there’s more therapies, resources and that’s a great thing. But it doesn’t mean these children weren’t there, there may have been more children classified with autism in the 1970’s and ’80s but we didn’t have this diagnostic criteria.”

The Penn State paper was published July 22 in the American Journal of Medical Genetics. The researchers say that an analysis of 11 years of special education enrollment data found that there was no actual increase in children enrolled in special ed. They say that when you look at the number of students with autism, the increase is directly mirrored by the decrease in students with intellectual disabilities.

“If you asked me, ‘Is there a real increase in the prevalence of autism?’ maybe there is, but probably much lower than the reported magnitude,” says geneticist Santhosh Girirajan from Pennsylvania State University.

In 1975, autism was found in only one in every 5,000 children. By 2012, one in every 68 children was diagnosed with autism. Most of the increases of autistic children who received special education under the United States’ Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) could easily be accounted for by the reduction of the number of students in the intellectually disabled category, according to the researchers at Penn State.

Now, when the researchers broke the data down by states, this inversely proportional relationship was not always seen, but the researchers said this discrepancy could be explained by state-specific health policy. For example, in California, no substantial relationship was found between a decrease in intellectual disability and an increase in autism. Those numbers didn’t match up the way the national figures did, according to Penn State Science.

The National Center for Educational Statistics maintains the actual IDEA figures online. In 1976, 961,000 students qualified because of an intellectual disability. In 2000, that number fell to 624,000. By 2010, the number of students qualifying for IDEA services under that category was 448,000. Autism figures were not even available in 1976. In 2000, 93,000 students received services due to autism, but 455,000 students qualified for services due to autism in 2010. Additionally, in the first half of the ’70s and before, prior to IDEA’s passing, schools had little obligation to help children with special needs, and many were just kept at home, according to a Trinity College course on education. In 1973, Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, said that 750,000 American children did not even attend school. Most of these children were kids with disabilities.

“Students with autism who receive special education services under IDEA Part B represent approximately 0.5 percent of all students attending public schools in the United States,” the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services at the U.S. Department of Education reported in 2011. A parental survey from 2011 and 2012 shows that, among children, the ASD rate could be as much as two percent. In 2013, Michael Rosanoff, speaking as a representative of Autism Speaks, said the autism rate among children could have actually been even higher than that parental survey suggested. Still, supporters of the new Penn State autism research say that that is where the semantics problem comes in.

These statistics imply that over half of all autistic students might not even be counted in the IDEA data. According to Wright’s Law, a child with a disability that doesn’t require special ed isn’t eligible under IDEA, but might qualify for protections under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. According to an article in Health Central, “Because the Section 504 definition of a disability is much broader, many times students who have Asperger syndrome or are considered high functioning will receive services under this law, because they do not meet the stricter definition of disability under IDEA.” Again, semantics could be the issue, supporters of the reclassification theory suggest. An Autism Daily Newscast post pointed out that more adults are being recognized as previously undiagnosed autistic individuals. The author claims that when she told her co-workers of her new diagnosis, many of them responded that they always thought she was “a bit weird.”

A report by the NHS Information Centre hit the news in 2012, claiming that a third of adults with learning difficulties were actually autistic. That report found that that 1.1 percent of all adults fell somewhere on the autism spectrum after asking more than 7,400 adults a series of questions that could pick up clues that those adults could have some form of autism. When comparing adults who have symptoms that fall in line with autism spectrum disorder and children who do, though, the statistics reflect that children today might be only a little under twice as likely to have some form of autism than today’s adults are.

So, while the statistics show a tripling of autism in just over a couple of years, there might only be a doubling of autism over a span of generations. The problem is, we may never know. There is no real way to compare raw data given that diagnostics, classification, school policy, job demands, societal demands, and school demands have all changed drastically over the last few decades.

Adding to the puzzle, though, are statistics from the U.K. government. A graph shows the breakdown of all learning disabilities, broken down by the age of the adult. The group of adults with the largest numbers of learning disabilities are aged 25-34 years. The rates of learning disabilities declines significantly the older the adult is. The group with the fewest learning disabilities includes adults aged 55-64 years.

Could the rising rates of autism spectrum disorder really just be rising rates of recognition and reclassification? Could what is now lower functioning autism be what was once considered an intellectual disability and before that, “mental retardation?” Likewise, could what is now considered higher functioning autism be what was once considered “not quite fitting in?” What do you think of this significant analysis of IDEA data from Penn State researchers?

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