The Myth of an Autism Epidemic

Autism Basics

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We hear stories about the rise in autism and the autism epidemic all of the time.

Every few years, the CDC releases a new report which shows a higher prevalence of autism in the United States, including:

  • 1 in 150 children in 2000
  • 1 in 150 children in 2002
  • 1 in 125 children in 2004
  • 1 in 110 children in 2006
  • 1 in 88 children in 2008
  • 1 in 68 children in 2010

Looking at those numbers, it is easy to see most people think that the rate of autism is rising.

And if the rate of autism is rising, then there must be a cause.

Thinking about it like that, it becomes easy to see why vaccines became the scapegoat for causing autism, especially after Andrew Wakefield told everyone that it "is my feeling, that the, the risk of this particular syndrome developing is related to the combined vaccine, the MMR..."

The Myth of an Autism Epidemic

Many experts don't think that there is an autism epidemic though.

As Emily Willingham has said, "...the numbers of people born with autism aren’t necessarily increasing dramatically. It’s just that we’re getting better and better at counting them."

There are several different explanations for the apparent rise in the number of children being diagnosed with autism, including:

    All together, these explanations help explain what has been confirmed by numerous studies, that the true prevalence of autism hasn't changed over time.

    What You Need To Know About The Autism Epidemic Myth

    There is no autism epidemic.

    • There are adults and older people with autism.
    • The idea that the 'autism epidemic' is a myth is not new - experts have been talking about it for almost 10 years, which makes you wonder why some people still push the idea.
    • A 2015 study concluded that "Changes in reporting practices can account for most (60%) of the increase in the observed prevalence of ASDs in children born from 1980 through 1991 in Denmark. Hence, the study supports the argument that the apparent increase in ASDs in recent years is in large part attributable to changes in reporting practices."
    • Autism is thought to be genetic.

    Most importantly, as Steven Novella has said, "If there is no autism epidemic, if there is a “stable incidence” of autism over recent decades, then this alone is powerful evidence against the vaccine hypothesis – and in fact removes the primary piece of evidence for a vaccine-autism connection."


    Bishop DV, Whitehouse AJ, Watt HJ, Line EA. Autism and diagnostic substitution: evidence from a study of adults with a history of developmental language disorder. Dev Med Child Neurol. 2008 Mar 31

    Hansen, Stefan N. Explaining the Increase in the Prevalence of Autism Spectrum Disorders. The Proportion Attributable to Changes in Reporting Practices. JAMA Pediatr. 2015;169(1):56-62.

    Liu, Ka-Yuet. Social Influence and the Autism Epidemic. American Journal of Sociology. Vol. 115, No. 5 (March 2010), pp. 1387-1434

    Shattuck, Paul T. The Contribution of Diagnostic Substitution to the Growing Administrative Prevalence of Autism in US Special Education. PEDIATRICS Vol. 117 No. 4 April 2006, pp. 1028-1037

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