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Roughly 1 in 30 — 3.49% — of children and adolescents ages 3 to 17 were diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in 2020, according to a JAMA Pediatrics research letter published this month by a team of researchers in China.
The researchers used data, gathered in 2019 and 2020, from the U.S. National Health Interview Survey (NHIS), which collects health-related information via household interviews conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau.
During the NHIS interviews, a parent or guardian reported on ASD diagnoses made by a physician or other healthcare professional.
Of the 12,554 individuals ages 3 to 17 surveyed in 2019 and 2020, 410 were reported to have a diagnosis of ASD.
The research team, including corresponding author Dr. Wenhan Yang, M.D., Ph.D., from the School of Public Health, Guangdong Pharmaceutical University in China, compared the 2019 and 2020 NHIS results to NHIS results from the years 2014 to 2018.
“We found the prevalence of ASD increased from 2014 to 2016, decreased from 2016 to 2017, and then increased again from 2017 to 2020,” Yang and colleagues wrote.
The study showed an ASD diagnosis rate of 2.79% in 2019 and 3.39% in 2020 — which is a 53% increase since 2017 — and reported an overall ASD diagnosis rate of 3.14% in 2019 and 2020.
The researchers said the 2019 and 2020 prevalence rates were higher than those reported in other countries and geographical areas since 2014 — including Europe (0.42% to 3.13%), the Middle East (0.11% to 1.53%) and Australia (1.41% to 2.52%).
The data showed a higher prevalence of ASD in boys. For 2019 and 2020, 4.64% of boys were reported as having been diagnosed with ASD versus 1.56% of girls.
The study authors also found a statistically significant higher rate of ASD diagnosis among lower-income demographics.
The authors noted a limitation of their research is that it relied on parents’ recall of information, which may biased or incomplete.
Brian Hooker, Ph.D., P.E., said the researchers’ findings are important because their data capture ASD diagnosis information that other measurements of ASD diagnosis rates may have missed.
Hooker, chief science advisor at Children’s Health Defense, said every four years the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) publishes an update on its estimate of the rate of autism in children, through the agency’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring (ADDM) Network.
The ADDM data, however, tends to underestimate the rate of autism, according to Hooker, because it draws largely from reports of higher-income families and looks only at diagnosis rates of 8-year-olds.
The NHIS data used by Yang and colleagues “are more accurate and more reflective of where cases are missing in the CDC’s numbers because people in the ADDM Network tend to be of a higher-income demographic,” he said. “This study has really captured the lower end of poverty-level income demographics.”
“I think it’s stunning that there’s a statistically significant difference [showing] that the higher levels of autism are now being diagnosed in those with lower income.
“It’s interesting because it’s something that we suspected all along, but we haven’t seen it quantified like this.”
There is no immediately clear explanation for why the child autism rate is now higher among lower-income families compared to higher-income families.
However, Hooker thought it might reflect the fact that more children in schools serving lower-income demographics are being diagnosed in order to get those children access to services.
Or, he said, it might be that people in lower-income demographics tend to be more vaccine-compliant because they’re participating in the CDC’s Vaccines for Children program, where they get their vaccines for free.
“You do have to wonder about vaccination rates because higher-income families tend to vaccinate less.”
In May 2020, Hooker and colleagues found negative health outcomes, including developmental delays, asthma, ear infections and gastrointestinal disorders, to be associated with adherence to the CDC’s recommended vaccination schedule for children.
The CDC’s website states that vaccines do not cause autism. However, in the high-profile vaccine-injury case involving Hannah Poling, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services conceded that Poling’s autism was caused by a vaccine.
The concession document in the Poling case stated:
“The vaccinations Hannah received on July 19, 2000, significantly aggravated an underlying mitochondrial disorder, which predisposed her to deficits in cellular energy metabolism, and manifested as a regressive encephalopathy with features of autism spectrum disorder.”
Future research must focus on ‘risk factors and causes of ASD’
Though the study authors said their findings warrant investigation into the risk factors for developing autism, they did not suggest what potential risk factors future researchers should consider.
“ASD is a complicated neurodevelopmental disability with an increasing prevalence worldwide and considerable implications for individuals and their families,” the authors of the JAMA Pediatrics letter wrote.
“Given that ASD is a lifelong disease in most children, future research needs to focus on understanding risk factors for and causes of ASD.”
Much recent research has focused on identifying the possible genetic components of the condition.
Autism geneticists are now studying ‘the final frontier” of the non-coding genome, according to Spectrum, an online outlet for autism news and analysis. The non-coding genome is the largely unexplored 99% of the human genome that lies beyond the protein-coding exome.
However, Stephanie Seneff, Ph.D., a senior research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, attributes risk factors beyond genetics to the development of the condition.
Seneff — who for decades has investigated possible causes for the high rates of ASD in American children — said exposure to glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup weedkiller that is also present in many foods, is a probable risk factor.
Nonetheless, the CDC’s research through the ADDM Network does not investigate what external factors might impact the prevalence of autism diagnoses.
According to the CDC website, the ADDM Network’s goals are to:
- Compare how common ASD is in different areas of the country.
- Measure progress in early ASD identification.
- Identify changes in ASD occurrence over time.
- Understand the impact of ASD and related conditions in U.S. communities.
Public health experts ‘tap dance’ on new high numbers, attributing rise to ‘greater awareness’
Dr. Marc Siegel, internal medicine doctor and clinical professor at the New York University Grossman School of Medicine, told FOX News he believes the rise in autism diagnoses is largely a function of more parents being on the lookout for signs of ASD in their children.
“This [study] was pre-pandemic, so I want to start with that. It’s because parents were more on the lookout for resistance in routines, not meeting your glances, emotional withdrawal, obsessive behavior — all of that is what could go into being diagnosed with an autistic spectrum disorder.
“Raising awareness is a big, big part of it, but there’s also probably something that women are exposed to in the womb that we don’t yet know about that could be causing it.
“And a third thing is all of the bombardment of the internet, of social media, of iPhones, all of that leads to an inability to socialize.”
However, Kim Rossi, managing editor of Age of Autism, found Siegel’s reasons unconvincing and inadequate.
Age of Autism is a non-profit that gives “voice to those who believe autism is an environmentally induced illness, that it is treatable and that children can recover.”
Rossi, mother of three adult children with autism, said in a July 12 post that Siegel “tap danced” on the new autism numbers and failed to provide any substantial answers about what parents need to know regarding the surge in ASD diagnoses reported by the study.
“Autism numbers continue to rise unabated. But no one is really concerned. It’s just this or that or tra la la … And no one cares in public health, pediatrics, or Washington.
“Notice how Siegel alludes to ‘something women are exposed to in the womb’ which is ‘probably’ also a factor. After thirty years of exploding autism statistics, we’re still totally uninterested in what that ‘something’ might be.”
According to Rossi, the surge in ASD diagnoses among U.S. children is largely “coming from the outside” in the form of environmental toxins, including vaccines — and these potential risk factors should be researched.
“Something on the outside is affecting the inside,” she told The Defender in an interview.
Rossi speculated environmental factors, including exposure to chemicals and eating non-organic foods, may play a role.
“Parents have reported for decades vaccine injury and then an autism diagnosis,” she said.
Rossi also expressed concern about the recent trend to frame autism in terms of “neurodiversity” — a view that emphasizes the potential gifts of autism and downplays the challenges presented by the condition.
“Autism has fallen under the umbrella of identity politics,” she said.
While people with autism should be proud, she said, the current framing of ASD as a personality trait does not adequately respect and honor the situation of many individuals with ASD — particularly those with severe autism — and their family members who care for them.
When ASD is no longer considered a medical condition, everyone is “off the hook” for identifying and mitigating the possible environmental risk factors.
No one is held responsible, she said. No one, except the parents caring for autistic children and the school districts serving them.