Overdiagnosing Autism

Have you noticed the dramatic increase in the diagnosis of autism? I have, because I keep seeing the diagnosis applied to people who in the past would just have been called socially awkward or withdrawn–in other words, people who behave like me.

Psychology professor Dr. Allen Francis has noticed too, and he explains some of the factors leading to the “epidemic”:

We have a strong urge to find labels for disturbing behaviors; naming things gives us an (often false) feeling that we control them. So, time and again, an obscure diagnosis suddenly comes out of nowhere to achieve great popularity. It seems temporarily to explain a lot of previously confusing behavior — but then suddenly and mysteriously returns to obscurity. 

Not so long ago, autism was the rarest of diagnoses, occurring in fewer than one in 2,000 people. Now the rate has skyrocketed to 1 in 88 in America (and to a remarkable 1 in 38 in Korea). And there is no end in sight. 


Anything is possible, but when rates rise this high and this fast, the best bet is always that there has been a change in diagnostic habits, not a real change in people or in the rate of illness.