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because I keep seeing the diagnosis applied to people who in the past would just have been called socially awkward or withdrawn–in other words, people who behave like me.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.

2 thoughts on “Overdiagnosing Autism”

  1. Jason, the article was long on conjecture and short on data. There have been studies on the subject. A recent one (2009 iir) in the the journal Epidemiology studied the increase in the rates in autism and found that only a small portion increase can be explained by better diagnosis or expanded diagnostic criteria. Anecdotally, my son has severe autism and because of this, my wife and I are pretty active in the local autism community. All the kids I’ve met that have an autism diagnosis have significant neuro-developmental deficiencies. They aren’t just “socially awkward or shy”. Additionally, my wife, mother, and I volunteer at my son’s school. The number of kids with autism there seems to match up with the CDC numbers (granted, my personal experience is a small sample) and these kids also have deficiencies beyond shyness or awkwardness.


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