Is there a new epidemic of autism?

June 11, 2012

Mark L. Friedman, MD, FACEP, FACP

Autism is increasingly in the news, alarming new parents everywhere. Is this a new epidemic? Where did it come from?

The truth of the matter is, what we are dealing with is a news epidemic. The increasing incidence of "autism" is directly co-incident to a decreasing incidence of similar, though differently named, conditions.


But why is this happening? Autism, mental retardation, learning disabilities, and a variety of other complex neurobiological disorders are in general still poorly understood. Increasingly, as we begin to understand the human genome, we are beginning to uncover the biological bases for them. We know, for example, that "Down's Syndrome," which results in profound intellectual deficits, is caused by an extra 23rd chromosome. But until we uncover the biology of a variety of other syndromes, we are left with descriptive definitions for a broad spectrum of disorders currently designated as "autism."

One thing we do know is that autism is not caused by vaccination. See my previous blog on vaccination: Why choose vaccinations?

As with cancer, I predict we will discover that "autism" is in fact many different "diseases" that cause similar effects.

What we are seeing now is in fact similar to what happened with the "war on cancer" in the 1970s. Now, as then, a tremendous increase in available resources has occurred, both for treatment and research. So if you are a researcher working on "inborn errors of metabolism," you are suddenly engaged in "autism research." If you are treating a patient who previously had "mental retardation", but the school system has more resources for autistic children, voilá, a new diagnosis has occurred.

Is this bad, fraudulent, or evil? No. It's just different. It follows a principle in clinical medicine known as Sutton's Law -- named after bank robber Willie Sutton, who reputedly replied to a reporter's inquiry as to why he robbed banks by saying, "Because that's where the money is."

Eventually (we all hope soon) the application of all these resources will result in better diagnosis and treatment.

Originally published Jun 11, 2012 9:00:45 AM.