New autism prevalence numbers raise questions

    Autism advocates frequently quote statistics to draw attention to the disorder. This week, new numbers seem to support their urgency. Government funded studies now state the prevalence of autism at one in 100 – up from the previous estimate of one in 150. But scientists urge caution in interpreting these numbers.

    Autism advocates frequently quote statistics to draw attention to the disorder. This week, new numbers seem to support their urgency. Government funded studies now state the prevalence of autism at one in 100 – up from the previous estimate of one in 150. But scientists urge caution in interpreting these numbers.

    Listen:

    [audio:091007msautism.mp3]

    At first glance, the new numbers seem to indicate that there is a significant rise in autism cases. But many scientists say the new numbers are not a surprise, and at least in part reflect the changing way in which autism is understood, defined, and diagnosed.

    George Washington University researcher Roy Richard Grinker has written “Unstrange Minds: Remapping the World of Autism”. He says the parents are often confused about the prevalence of autism, largely because of inaccurate or incomplete media reports.

    Grinker: These numbers were not necessarily new to those who are in the scientific field, and yet if you were to look at the media presentation about these figures, you’d get a sense that there is an epidemic, and there’s no evidence of that, you’d get a sense that there is something drastically new in the prevalence of autism and there is no evidence of that either.

    The release of the new numbers coincides with a conference in Philadelphia on the ethics of communicating scientific findings of autism risk, organized by Drexel University’s School of Public Health.

    Michael Yudell is a professor in Drexel University’s school of public health. He says researchers have to get better at communicating what their findings mean.

    Yudell: Because we’re doing a lousy job right now, so we’re hoping to anticipate what is going to happen, so we don’t get ourselves into trouble with misinformation and miscommunication going forward.

    Experts at the conference say many parents distrust the scientific community because they see so much conflicting information about its prevalence and theories about what causes it.

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