Jun 16th 2023
Autism, a developmental disability that causes complications with communication, social interaction, and integration, almost tripled in occurrence across the United States between 2000 and 2016. 
A CDC study found that one in 150 children had autism in 2000; This figure grows to one in 54 children by 2016; The rate now stands at roughly one in 44 children. 
While there is no way to determine the precise cause behind the increase in autism rates, environmental factors, genetic factors, changes in diagnostic practices, and increased awareness of the disorder resulting in more individuals getting evaluated and diagnosed are likely contributing influences.
This article will explore some of the theoretical ideas behind why autism rates are rising.
What it means to be autistic has changed over the past 80 years. In the 1940’s, the disorder was only attributed to children who displayed symptoms that today would be described as ‘severe’.
It wasn’t until the 1990s that autism was thought of on a scale, with people considered anything from mildly autistic to severely autistic. This was ratified in 1994 when the APA released the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), declaring autism a spectrum disorder.
Prior to 2013, Asperger’s syndrome, pervasive developmental disorder, Rett syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder, and PDD-NOS were all regarded as distinct autism spectrum diagnoses.  Following the APA’s publication of the DSM-V in 2013, anyone with symptoms of autism receives the same blanket diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). 
It follows that more people now meet the conditions required for an autism diagnosis, meaning a rise in autism rates.
These are largely associated with events during pregnancy and the birth of the child. Examples include: 
Pregnancy obesity and extreme weight gain during pregnancy are linked with greater incidence of autism.
Whether autism rates will continue to rise cannot be established definitively. Further changes to diagnostic criteria could increase or decrease autism rates, depending on what symptoms qualify for diagnosis.
Increased awareness about the condition, greater education, and evolving medical treatments could lead to a decline in autism diagnoses.
Alternatively, this could spur more parents to bring in children for autism evaluations, with improved screening practices across the whole of society uncovering a greater number of diagnoses than previous years.
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