Autism prevalence data are always news makers. Although, maybe it’s just me, but the announcement of a new autism prevalence estimate for the U.S. didn’t seem to be as big a news story as previous reports. That said, so much of the discussion around prevalence estimates centers on “what does this tell us about the past” or “what about the future”.
“What does this tell us about the past” is the discussion around “was there/is there an epidemic (usually with an explicit or implicit reference to vaccines)”. “What about the future” is usually a discussion focused on the economic burden and what happens in we project the trends out to the future.
But what about right now? We have roughly 2% of our school age children in the U.S. who are autistic. Disabled to various degrees. Probably a like number of adults as well. For those who don’t accept this notion, keep in mind that one of the major themes of the recent report was how a large fraction of autistics were identified late. They had fallen through the cracks and were possibly not receiving the supports they needed. We are talking teenagers, not just young children. It isn’t that great a leap to say that we there is a large population of unidentified autistic adults.
Most news stories and most discussion will focus on one number: 2%. I would argue, and will argue, that a factor of at least equal importance is not how many autistics there are, but how diverse this population is and how little is really known.
There is no biological test for autism. As this study and many others have shown, the understanding of what autism is, even behaviorally, is still evolving. And this is important whether you take a medical model of autism or a disability model or some combination of the two.
We (a society of autistic and non-autistic people) need to give autistics the tools and supports needed to succeed in this world, with various definitions of success. And we can’t do that if we don’t understand what is needed. 2% is a number that can grab people’s attention. And that includes politicians. But to me, the bigger issue is the breadth of the spectrum. The diversity of the autistic population. Consider the report again . There are so many ways to look at the data, but let me pick some facts to highlight. The prevalence estimate for 10-13 year olds was about 2.4%. Of this, roughly half fall into the so-called “mild” autism category. Only 5% of parents placed their child into the “severe” category. Of course, there is no real definition of mild, moderate, or severe to use for this, and parents might be biased to report milder needs, but let’s go with the structure we are given. But, in the end, 1%, 5%, 95%, is less important than the fact that there are subpopulations of autistics which needs a very different support structure than others.
Many people discussing the new prevalence values focus on the need to have the money to provide supports (be it in the home, the school or the workplace, medical or non-medical) for a wide variety of autistics. But in order to do that, we have to know what supports and tools are needed. I know this is getting repetitive, but no amount of money can give autistics, parents, teachers, caregivers and employers the tools needed if we don’t know what the appropriate tools are.
There is a broad spectrum of autism, and a broad spectrum of ages. Perhaps the most overlooked area of autism, be it research or supports and services, are the needs of adults. Many parents tend to categorize autism by IQ, with a linear spectrum with those with lower IQ’s on one side and those with higher IQ’s on the other. Even with this simple model, we have a huge matrix of needs for autistics: with age on one axis, and IQ on another. But the IQ-category idea is too simplistic. Which means, the real matrix of needs we have to understand is multidimensional.
Ask someone outside the community who has a basic understanding of the autism discussion, “what should we do for autistics?” and you are likely to get, “behavioral intervention”. OK, for some fraction of a young population, that may be a good answer. Maybe, one might argue, truly individualized education plans (IEP) will allow parents and teachers to customize supports for the needs of the autistic during school. That’s how it is supposed to work, but this process would be much more efficient if we had better recommendations for autistic students of all ages.
It is worth taking a moment here to point out that here is a point where more money directly into services is needed. Mention special education to a school administer and you are likely to hear “unfunded mandate”, “budget”, and “encroachment”. We in the U.S. have never lived up to our responsibility to support special education as promised from a federal level (federal special education support is less than 1/2 what was promised). And it isn’t like state and local governments are supporting special education to the levels needed.
But that’s just school. What about transition to adulthood? Thank god for people like Paul Shattuck who has been asking these questions, but this study only came out last year . And adulthood and autism has recently been referred to as “the great unknown” in one paper.
And medical issues? These get a lot of discussion, especially in online parent forums. Ask what medical conditions are more common in autistics and you will likely hear, “GI complaints”, “immune dysfunction”, “metabolic dysfunction”. Anyone want to venture a guess as to what are, by far, the most common comorbid conditions to autism in children? Neurological disorders and mental health conditions. Autistics are 25 times more likely to have one or both of these. And what happens in older populations? Another “great unknown”.
So, yes, 2% is big. And it’s important. And it will get people’s attention. But if we don’t know what tools or how to support any given segment of the population, it’s just saying how many people we can’t support.
Of course we need to take autism seriously. It doesn’t matter if 2%, 0.2% or 0.02% of the population are autistic, it is still important. But we need to recognize that there are whole areas of questions we haven’t even asked yet, much less found good answers for. It is hard to package this essage into a sound bite, but the focus needs to be on the breadth of the questions, not just te size of the population.