There is No Autism Epidemic2 min read

When I was in col­lege, the “autism epi­demic” was a hot topic among would-be teachers. 

“The autism rates keep increasing!” they said in an oh-won’t-someone-think-of-the-children voice. “1 in 59 chil­dren are diag­nosed! It’s a modern epi­demic! What can we do?” 

Even as a fresh-faced col­lege stu­dent, still a ways away from my own diag­nosis, I didn’t buy it. 

For one thing, the rate’s prob­ably a lot higher. There’s a gender bias in autism diag­nosis, leaving many girls undi­ag­nosed. Many people don’t realize they’re autistic until adult­hood, like par­ents who see them­selves in their autistic chil­dren and celebri­ties like Anthony Hopkins.  

There are no rising autism rates. Autism has always existed, and there has always been a lot of us. Autism is not a dis­ease to be cured; it’s a normal, inherent part of humanity. 

Look at Greta Thunberg. Greta is open about her autism, even calling it her super­power in the right con­text that’s allowed her to become such an influ­en­tial activist.  If Greta were active twenty years ago, it’s highly unlikely that she would’ve been diag­nosed. She prob­ably wouldn’t have been diag­nosed ten years ago, or maybe even five. 

That might not seem like a big deal at first. After all, Greta’s still Greta. Diagnosed or not, she’s still a hero. But it is impor­tant to con­sider. Maybe not about Greta specif­i­cally, but about the unknown Gretas sprin­kled throughout his­tory who used their “super­power” to change the world.  

There’s no shortage of Internet lis­ti­cles about potentially-autistic his­tor­ical fig­ures, throwing out names like Thomas Jefferson, Isaac Newton, and Albert Einstein. I’m not here to arm­chair diag­nose the dead; how­ever, there is merit to exam­ining his­tory through an autistic lens. If even some his­tor­ical fig­ures were autistic (a safe bet) then it shows that autism has shaped our his­tory.  

It’s really not a stretch. Attention to detail, pas­sion, per­sis­tence, and the ability to chal­lenge social norms are all traits that can change the world. They’re also all autistic traits. 

Look at fic­tion. There’s a reason why many autis­tics like me head-canon fic­tional char­ac­ters as autistic. Media’s bursting at the seams with socially awk­ward geniuses, savant syn­drome, and quirky, blunt-speaking char­ac­ters.

It’s not a coin­ci­dence that fic­tion is brim­ming with hun­dreds of years of autistic arche­types. They con­tinue to pop up because the cre­ators either know people like that or were like that them­selves.  

Autism is, and always has been, a flavor of humanity. It comes with its dis­ad­van­tages and strengths, like every­thing else in life. Humanity can only improve, for both allis­tics and autis­tics alike, when we stop seeing autism as an epi­demic and finally embrace it as another way to be human. 

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  1. There must be many women my age (in our fifties) who have never been diag­nosed and would be met with gate­keeping if we tried. None of us would have been diag­nosed as chil­dren, and any­thing that was noticed received a dif­ferent name. My grade school teachers thought I had “bad social skills.” I can’t get past gate­keepers now, because they think autism is for chil­dren. Any sta­tis­tics in a sit­u­a­tion like this must be false.

    1. Author

      I’m sorry to hear about the gate­keeping. You’re right that a lot of women (prob­ably men too) your age wouldn’t have been diag­nosed. I’m only in my twen­ties and I was missed as a child. I can’t prove it, but I’m fairly con­fi­dent the sta­tis­tics are not only false but sig­nif­i­cantly higher because of that.

    2. This is a very good point, and I’m inclined to agree; how­ever, I have read a study about late dx adults, and over 13 had attempted sui­cide. Two of my closest friends were def­i­nitely autistic and undi­ag­nosed, and both took their lives in their mid-30s. Indeed, I have made attempts on taking my life, and have also had sev­eral close calls with med­ical issues… sepsis, mul­tiple organ failure, 14 surg­eries for dif­ferent things… almost all directly stress related. I’m 39. I think, too, of celebri­ties who have taken their lives while young or died in unex­pected ways, and they also fit the pro­file very much.

      I am not sure of the sta­tis­tics or accu­racy, but I would imagine that diag­nosed or not, many of us die too young.

  2. I was diag­nosed on Christmas Eve, 2002… sev­en­teen years ago. My youngest daughter, 13 yo, was diag­nosed shortly after that in early 2003. The esti­mated ratio of Autistics to Neurotypicals was about 1:300 (and people with Asperger’s Syndrome, like us, were esti­mated at around 1:150). In the fol­lowing year, all four of my adult chil­dren — 3 girls and 1 boy — were diag­nosed, too.

    I read Steve Silberman’s December 2001 article, “The Geek Syndrome”, on, and found it made a lot of sense. It fig­ured that people — males and females — with Asperger’s Syndrome (still a recog­nised diag­nosis out­side the USA)were pairing up in tech enclaves like Silicon Valley and Silicon Alley and having chil­dren with Asperger’s Syndrome and more pro­found forms of Autism.

    But even in my own case, where I was mar­ried to an NT woman, the birth rate of chil­dren with ASD was increasing. And now, in January 2020, we have a family of 21 diag­nosed with ASD from a total of 25 over three gen­er­a­tions. That, to me, rep­re­sents an increased ratio of inci­dence of ASD.

    So claims that there’s NO increase, that it’s all down to improved rates of diag­nosis, re not com­pletely accu­rate.

    I agree that there’s no epi­demic. But it’s not just a ques­tion of better rates of diag­nosis. There is a nat­ural increase in inci­dence from birth rates.

    1. First, I don’t really think there are more pro­found forms of autism, just more pro­found dis­ability. I’m pretty sure that when they stan­dardize using neural imaging like fMRI to diag­nose autism, it will be evi­dent that what was thought of as “Asperger’s” before is actu­ally the same neu­ro­log­ical pro­file non­speakers have and that it deals with right-brain pro­cessing.

      I wrote an article [ here ] claiming that autis­tics are increasing in fre­quency, at least some­what, due to the internet. There’s a research article that says autis­tics are 10x more likely to marry another autistic. I think 25 years ago (and decreasing every year), that sta­tistic would’ve been very dif­ferent and the incep­tion and pro­lif­er­a­tion of the internet enabled us to find each other. We weren’t meeting at ball­games, church, dance clubs, and the places where non-autistics usu­ally met. I think it’s simple genetics and the acci­dental romantic accom­mo­da­tion of being able to find each other on our own terms (we put the “spe­cial interest” in spe­cial interest groups, eh?)

      21 of 25! That’s a little higher than my own fam­i­ly’s ratio, but my hus­band’s family on his father’s side is 100% autistic as far back as we can see.

  3. Eventually the “autism rates” will start to taper off as people figure out that autism is present in about 2–3% of the pop­u­la­tion. There’s no need to be afraid of “rising rates” when we’re get­ting better at iden­ti­fying autism. Eventually the num­bers will meet reality.

    And I totally agree about people writing char­ac­ters with autistic traits. I wrote autistic char­ac­ters long before my diag­nosis. (If it’s OK to share, I wrote about one of them: ) It is so, so easy for writers to think of inter­esting and unique traits for char­ac­ters and end up writing someone who sounds very autistic.

  4. Some years ago it was nec­es­sary for me to under­stand office psy­chopaths. Amongst that learning I dis­cov­ered that psy­co­pathy is encoded in the genes of the human race. They change things and create chaos, gets the genes mixed up across the pop­u­la­tion. I believe that ASD is also hard wired into the human genome because we need the Newtons, Mozarts, thinkers, problem solvers etc. Doesn’t make it fun for people with ASD but it also means that it is not a med­ical issue that needs to be cured–that is bias. In Natures big thinking we are nec­es­sary.

    1. Author

      That’s so inter­esting that you brought up psy­chopaths. I did a lot of research on psy­chopaths in col­lege. I’ve started won­dering if the main­stream under­standing of psy­chopathy is off, like it is for autism.

      I’m also starting to believe that autism is hard wired into the human genome. I feel like instead of viewing it as a dis­order, it’s more like intro­ver­sion and extro­ver­sion.

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