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‘Autism epidemic’ driven by doctors diagnosing kids with mild symptoms

The so-called autism epidemic is being driven by doctors diagnosing more children with less severe symptoms, researchers say, not by more children being born with the condition.

A study published in Autism Research, titled Evidence of a reduction over time in the behavioral severity of autistic disorder diagnoses, found the 20-fold increase in Australian autism diagnosis rates was the result of medical professionals having a better understanding of autism.

Currently, 1 per cent of Australian children have been diagnosed with autism, and most schools would have at least one child with the condition.

The researchers, led by professor Andrew Whitehouse from the Telethon Kids Institute, looked at West Australian autism diagnosis data of 1252 children, gathered between 2000 and 2006. These were the years that saw the greatest increases in autism diagnoses.

Whitehouse and his team examined differences in both the percentage of newly diagnosed cases that met each of the 12 diagnostic criteria for autism, as well as the severity ratings of the behaviours observed.

His team found that more children were not being born with autism.

“What the study shows is that the ‘autism epidemic’ is largely due to a shift toward diagnosing more children with less severe behaviours,” Whitehouse said.

“What it represents is actually a shift in our understanding of what autism is. Back in the 1990s we only saw autism as quite a severe condition. Children had to have intellectual disabilities, have significant difficulties learning to talk. What has happened over the ensuing period is that we’ve recognised that autism doesn’t necessarily have to be just that severe condition. Children can have autism but be more mildly affected.”

Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterised by impaired social interaction, communication difficulties, and restricted and repetitive behaviour. It is also regarded as a spectrum disorder.

The rise in autism diagnoses has been mistakenly blamed on childhood vaccinations. In response, the federal government implemented the ‘no jab, no pay’ policy, which requires families to vaccinate their children – unless there is a proven medical reason not to do so – in order to receive childcare subsidies and family tax benefits.

Whitehouse doesn’t expect the anti-vaccination movement to pay any attention to his evidence.

“The anti-vax movement has shown absolutely no signs of listening to any evidence,” Whitehouse said.

“My concern is not the anti-vax movement, my concern is the truth. The evidence that we presented in this rigorous scientific paper is that the increase in the numbers of kids being diagnosed with autism is due to a diagnosis of these milder-symptom kids.

Whitehouse also said his findings mean there are many children and teenagers living with autism who have not been diagnosed.

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