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Autism: An Epidemic or A Matter of Definition?. Presented in partnership with the Empowerment Congress and the Office of Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas – with generous support from The California Endowment.

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Autism: An Epidemic or A Matter of Definition?

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Autism an epidemic or a matter of definition

Autism: An Epidemic or

A Matter of Definition?

Presented in partnership with the Empowerment Congress and the Office of Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas – with generous support from The California Endowment.


Autism an epidemic or a matter of definition

In 1943, Dr. Leon Kanner, a child psychiatrist, was the first scientist to describe autism, as a condition characterized by “inborn disturbance of affective contact,” “resistance to change,” and “insistence on sameness.”


Autism an epidemic or a matter of definition

In the 60’s, Dr. Bruno Bettelheim blamed bad parenting and “refrigerator mothers” (cold and unaffectionate) as the cause of autism. This view has been totally rejected as lacking any scientific basis.


Autism an epidemic or a matter of definition

Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) is a range of complex neurodevelopmental disorders, characterized by social impairments, communication difficulties, and restricted, repetitive, and stereotyped patterns of behavior.  


Autism an epidemic or a matter of definition

Although ASD varies significantly in character and severity, it occurs in all ethnic and socioeconomic groups and affects every age group.


Autism an epidemic or a matter of definition

Asperger’s disorder is named after Hans Asperger who, as a medical student at the University of Vienna during WWII, wrote his medical school thesis on boys who had difficulty forming groups, motor problems, unusual circumscribed interests, but otherwise good language and cognitive abilities.


Autism an epidemic or a matter of definition

Diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorders is based on descriptions and observations of behavior as there is not yet a valid bio-marker or biological test.


Autism an epidemic or a matter of definition

“There is almost nothing concerning autism about which everyone agrees except for the fact that it is a seriously debilitating disorder pervasively affecting almost all aspects of behavior.”

Dr. Laura Schreibman, Distinguished Professor of Psychology, UCSD


Autism an epidemic or a matter of definition

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Preventions, Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) affect 1 in 88 children in the U.S. This is almost double the rate reported in 2002.


Autism an epidemic or a matter of definition

Autism Spectrum Disorders are almost 5 times more common among boys (1 in 54) than among girls (1 in 252.)


Autism an epidemic or a matter of definition

In identical twins, if one child has ASD, the other will be affected about 60-90% of the time.

In non-identical twins, if one child has ASD, the other is affected about 0-24% of the time.


Autism an epidemic or a matter of definition

  • “The most likely cause of the autism epidemic is that autism has become fashionable – a popular fad diagnosis”

  • Dr. Allen Frances,  Chair of the DSM-IV Task Force Former Chairman of Psychiatry, Duke University School of Medicine

  • Professor Emeritus, Duke University


Autism an epidemic or a matter of definition

An expert panel of the American Psychiatric Association is currently reassessing the definition for autism, as part of the panel's work on the fifth edition of its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM5.)

This first major revision of the manual in 17 years is expected to narrow the criteria for autism.


Autism an epidemic or a matter of definition

"We have to make sure not everybody who is a little odd gets a diagnosis of autism or Asperger disorder. It involves a use of treatment resources. It becomes a cost issue.”

Dr. David J. Kupfer, Professor of Psychiatry, University of Pittsburgh


Autism an epidemic or a matter of definition

"Our fear is that we are going to take a big step backward. If clinicians say, ‘These kids don't fit the criteria for an autism spectrum diagnosis,' they are not going to get the support and services they need, and they're going to experience failure.”

Lori Shery, President of the Asperger Syndrome Education Network


Autism an epidemic or a matter of definition

Lifetime costs to care for an individual with ASD are estimated at $3 to $5 million beyond the ordinary lifetime costs of raising a child.  


Autism an epidemic or a matter of definition

Autism is costing society $137 billion annually, according to new estimates that suggest a three-fold increase in less than a decade.


Autism an epidemic or a matter of definition

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) became law in 1975 and was amended by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act in 2004 mandating schools in the United States to provide a free and appropriate education for all children with disabilities.


Autism an epidemic or a matter of definition

In the 1960s, Dr. IvarLovaas, UCLA, established behavior modification as the first effective treatment for autism.


Autism an epidemic or a matter of definition

An LA Times analysis found that the level of autism services in California varies by race and ethnicity, as indicated by the average spending per autistic child.

All children $9,751

White $11,723

Asian $11,063

Latino $7,634

Black $6,593


Autism an epidemic or a matter of definition

“We’re exploring the social differences people with autism have. We’re looking at everything from eye-tracking, to reasoning, to complex theory-of-mind stuff, which is about understanding what others feel or think.”

Dr. Ralph Adolphs, Bren Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience, Caltech


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