There is No Autism Epidemic

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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10 Responses

  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. 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 1/3 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.

      1. The statistics for suicide would probably be even worse if we knew them. I’ve survived cancer and venous thromboembolism and I’m certain that lack of social support was a big factor. But I don’t we’ve all passed away (older autistics). We’re hidden, especially in countries like mine where no one is really looking. We could be a valuable help to young autistic people, just by tracking outcomes to find out what approaches to life work better or worse.

  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. 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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