Has Autism Increased?

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.

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24 Comments


  1. This is so insightful, as always. I think you're absolutely spot on too and hopefully the increasing awareness and education helps to end some of the stigma and isolation. x

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  2. My Mum wore trousers and jumpers on the beach, was very unsympathetic to my emotional needs, had a daily routine that was not to be interrupted and was very fearful of change. Pretty sure she is on the spectrum, but obviously never diagnosed.

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  3. Great post. I agree completely. Just because diagnosis is increasing, doesn't mean ASD is increasing. #spectrumsunday

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  4. I do agree with you, when I was young, some kids were just seen as a bit weird, not enough was known, it is so much better for them and for everyone around them to more fully understand these conditions, know how to handle them as the individual and as someone coming into contact with an autistic person. Bring on the understanding, acceptance and research, it can only be a good thing. #marvmondays

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  5. My brother was severely autistic growing up so there was no question of it but my friends brother wasn't diagnosed for a long time. I agree that it's because more people are being diagnosed now as opposed to the past. My brother wasn't diagnosed for 5 years and he was severe so it shows how long it took! Thanks for linking up to #MarvMondays. Kaye xo

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  6. From everything I've read, it seems like you are right about it being a case of better understanding and diagnosis than an actual rise in people on the spectrum. The new research into autism, especially on the Asperger's end, in women has been fascinating – that women tend to be very good at social mirroring and other techniques that help them hide the more diagnostic traits, which is why there seems to be a bias to it appearing more in men. Really interesting area and I hope the growing understanding will mean kids growing up with a diagnosis now will be able to access even more support and understanding from their peers as well as the medical profession. #Marvmondays

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  7. Spot on. I have been reading Neurotribes the legacy of autism by Steve Silberman. Have you read it? It is s very thought provoking and interesting read and he raises this point too.
    The change in criteria for diagnosis has also lead to more children being identified as autism is now accepted as a broad spectrum but previously the criteria were much narrower and would not have included those deemed high functioning.

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  8. I also think parents are more likely to seek a diagnosis nowadays. Maybe that's due to more awareness. Great post #twinklytuesday

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  9. My Teenager has Autism and when he was diagnosed at 3 1/2, I knew virtually nothing about Autism. I have an uncle on my mother's side and an Aunt on my father's side who were both diagnosed as being partially mentally retarted. I would say that my aunt would more than likely get an Autism diagnosis now though. I remember her obsession with collecting baseball cards and she loves Baseball. I remember she had to have a certain routine that she never strayed from and when she did, it wasn't her choice and she would be in a bad mood the rest of the day. I absolutely believe that it's because of the awareness of Autism now and all of the research done to try to understand it and how it develops in a child. #abitofeverything

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  10. In so don't veleibve autism is rising but understanding is more apparent and so hope this continues as there is more depth to the disorder.
    Thinking about the rise in diagnose there is also all the older generations who are slowly getting diagnosed in the later years contribute to number of cases.
    Great post by the way and who says what is normal or not (but I won't go into that as it is a whole new subject, lol).
    P.s. I love the unicorn hat 🙂 X #spectrumSunday

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  11. My son is currently going through the process of being assessed for ASD and having read many articles on the subject I whole heartedly agree with you. Just a couple of years ago my son would have been totally dismissed as being on the spectrum because he gives eye contact but now that more id known about the condition it is realised that eye contact is not the be all and end all of ASD which is exactly why it is called a 'spectrum'. I'm so glad that more id known about it now and that more people are being diagnosed and getting the help they need.

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  12. Yes, I'm pretty sure my Grandma is autistic but anyone other than her family would probably be surprised to learn that.

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  13. There are kids I knew at school who seemed really 'weird' at the time (even weirder than me!) and now I think back to their behaviours and wonder if they're actually on the spectrum.

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  14. Unfortunately, it can still take that long in some areas. I was very lucky with Tyger that the hospital we were referred to has an excellent paediatric team with great knowledge of ASD and he was diagnosed relatively quickly (though, it still took over a year from when I first brought it up).

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  15. Oh, yes, I find all the newer research into women on the spectrum very interesting. I started looking into it when my sister was diagnosed but since realising I probably have Asperger's, too, I've looked even further. I'll probably write another blog post on it in the future, actually.

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  16. Funnily enough, I bought it for my mum for Christmas! She says it will probably take her a little while to get through, though, so I won't get a chance to read it in the near future.

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  17. Yes, that's another good point. I think both because of more awareness and because of less stigma?

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  18. Yes, I'm sure my mum has mentioned an older generation relative on her side who was thought to be mentally retarded (she did a lot of family tree stuff for a while) but she highly suspects it was actually autism!

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  19. Thank you. It's actually really comfy and warm! Haha.

    Yes, many more people are being diagnosed as adults these days.

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  20. The first thing the first couple of health care professionals I talked to about Tyger said was, 'Well, he gives good eye contact…' It's still such a big myth but more and more people are realising, luckily.

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  21. It's really interesting to see awareness rise. My mum's best friend's daughter is quite severely autistic and was born when I was around 9 or 10 so I've grown up always knowing about it but not the nuances of the spectrum. There's always something new to learn.

    I read a really interesting article earlier in the week about ADHD and how it seems like more people are becoming ADHD but actually it's just that the diagnostic criteria, particularly for girls and women, wasn't suitable as they present very differently than boys and men. It was fascinating and heartbreaking to read about, as the author described, a lost generation of women who have never realised they had a neurological disorder and have been trying to cope with the symptoms while feeling like it's something they're doing wrong.

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  22. Fantastic post again Nym! The same could be said about so many topics too, the internet is a powerful thing. Before I had Hayden, I was a little bit cynical about how many children were being diagnosed (something I am totally ashamed of, of course!) but when I look back now, I could say I knew about 4 or 5 children on the spectrum at school that were always just considered naughty. It isn't rising it is just more understood and talked about. It still has a lot of room for growth though I think! Thank you for linking up to #spectrumsunday, I really hope you join me again this week xx

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