If you go on any parenting forums and read threads about ASD – and if you don’t I can assure you I do it more than enough for both of us – you’ll know it’s only a matter of time until someone makes a comment about autism being more common ‘these days’.
Sometimes it’s worded as an accusation and mentions the ‘overdiagnosis’ of autism or using ASD as ‘an excuse for bad parenting’. Other times it’s a genuine question about whether autism is more common these days (and, if so, why or, if not, why it seems more common) from someone who is curious.
It’s hard to give a definitive answer but I certainly have a good idea based on observation and reading up obsessively quite a bit on the subject. If there’s one thing I’m good at it’s prattling on about ASD so here we go.
Firstly, no, the answer is not in any way connected to the Goram MMR vaccination.
I think there are several interlinked reasons for the apparent rise in ASD.
Professional understanding of ASD has increased to the point where many more people with Asperger’s are being recognised and diagnosed now. That doesn’t mean they didn’t exist before; in fact, I wrote a post last week about the realisation I’m probably on the spectrum. Now, in times past (and even in my own childhood only a couple of decades ago) there’s no way anyone would have thought I was autistic. A bit weird, yes. And with my slightly ‘hippy/alternative’ taste in clothes and green hair they probably still think I’m ‘that odd mum with the unicorn hat’.
|On the one hand, I’m not so odd I bought the hat; Wolf bought it for me.
On the other, he got it because I had an imaginary unicorn friend as a child…
which is perhaps slightly odd.
Going back further, my dad is also very definitely autistic but we didn’t understand that until relatively recently (the last few years). For a long time there were things about my dad that didn’t seem to quite fit. He’s a nice person and good husband and father…who sometimes comes out with the most bizarrely unthinking/insensitive remarks (a couple directed at me have been, ‘are you really tired or is it just your makeup?’ and, ‘what’s going on with your hair?’).
He has a professional job in a highly-paid position with lots of responsibility but if something disturbs his morning routine (having to clean up cat sick, his keys being in a different place etc.) he’s completely thrown for the day.
As a child I also remember him getting incredibly annoyed with me for being too loud but he would go about the house whistling and clapping himself even when people were trying to have conversations.
So many ‘inconsistencies’ and ‘quirks’ in my dad’s character make complete sense in the context of ASD. There is absolutely no way anyone would have thought to use the word ‘autistic’ to describe my dad when he was a child – it would have been laughable – but he would more than qualify for a diagnosis now.
|Even our cats are starting to look into it…|
It’s not just the Asperger’s ‘end of the spectrum’ professionals understand better. More and more research is being done into ASD in general and children and adults with ‘classic autism’ are being given much more support. Families being given more assistance means there’s a higher chance of autistic children attending mainstream schools and less need for them to be put into residential care homes (though, of course, some parents do still have to make this incredibly difficult decision). ASD is generally more visible as people see it less and less as something shameful and/or simply unknown.
I had a friend at school whose brothers are autistic but it’s only in more recent years I’ve learned this. At the time I didn’t know why they didn’t live with her and her parents full time. All I knew was they had ‘something’ that meant they needed extra help and support. I was completely ignorant and I didn’t ask (which I probably should have done). I hope, even in the decade that’s passed since then, awareness of ASD has grown to the point where teenagers now would be more likely to know what autism is and feel they could ask questions.
The rise of the internet has helped massively. It gives people a place to talk about their ASD – or their kid’s ASD – anonymously. Social media means stories about people on the spectrum are often shared and read quite widely. People on the spectrum often find text based communication much easier than face to face/spoken communication so you’re probably more likely to have a long conversation with an autistic person on an internet forum than in ‘the real world’, too.
All of this: the greater understanding, the higher rates of diagnosis, social media and the internet in general adds to the perception that ASD is more common than it used to be. But it’s just that: a perception. The reality is autism has always been there but we wrote off autistic people as ‘weird’, ‘eccentric’, ‘quirky’, ‘rude’, ‘stupid’, ‘naughty’ and a whole host of other derogatory adjectives.
I like to think that’s all changing.