Rise in autism cases13th January 2009
The number of autism cases in California is eight times higher than in the past decade, and new research shows that environmental factors may be to blame.
These statistical increases may not arise from an increase in the number of people with autism.
Researchers say they may be a result instead of the broadening of diagnostical criteria for autism, or of the increasing amount of diagnoses in children.
They argue that these factors, called "artifacts", create the illusion that the number of autism cases is increasing.
Irva Hertz-Picciotto of the University of California, who researched the new study, said that while these artifacts do partly explain the rise in autism cases, they do not even account for half of the increase.
Hertz-Picciotto said that this theory doesn't come close to explaining the increases in the last 10 years.
She said that the more one whittles away at this increase, the more one has to say that what is left over is real, and that since the rise in autism cases can't be fully explained by artifacts, environmental factors deserve serious consideration.
She admits that the study does not make sense of one artifact.
Today's parents are more aware of autism than they were 10 years ago, and are more likely to spot it.
Gary Goldstein of Johns Hopkins University said if one isn't trying to find autism, it can't be diagnosed, and that the awareness of parents could be affecting the apparent rise in autism cases.
Goldstein said that there is an enormous increase in awareness, and that everybody knows about autism now, though they didn't 16 years ago.
Hertz-Picciotto said that the awareness of people is very hard to quantify.
She said that at some point, as more and more parents became aware of autism, the increase should have leveled off. Instead there is a continued increase in autism.
And while most funding for autism looks purely for a genetic basis, Hertz-Picciotto argues that it is time to begin looking for an environmental one.
She said that time is passing and science has a lot to do to find the real causes of autism, and that a lot has changed in the environment over the last 10 to 15 years.
The word "environment", she added, can include changes such as the medications people take, assisted reproduction technology, and the ingredients of soaps, pet shampoos and toothpaste, and other household items.
Michael Cuccaro of the University of Miami praised the new study, agreeing that the time has come to seek for an environmental basis for autism.
He said that he did not think it premature to look for environmental risks, and that there are environmental risk factors which are know to give rise to a wide range of developmental conditions.
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