New Intensity to Debate Over Autism Cause
Parents and Researchers Grapple With Claims That Autism Is Linked to Thimerosal in Vaccines
WebMD News Archive
Eric Fombonne, MD, FRCPsych, of the Institute of Psychiatry at King's
College, London, has studied autism in the U.K.
"From our data, we can say that we have a prevalence that is 62 cases
per 10,000 children," he told WebMD in a 2001 interview. "In the
mid-1960s, we showed rates of 4 cases per 10,000."
Isn't this the sign of an epidemic? Not necessarily.
"You cannot compare studies now to studies from 30 years ago,"
Fombonne said. "It would be comparing oranges not with apples, but with
Children with autism vary widely. It was not until 1940 that this
constellation of problems with social interaction, communication, and focused
interest came to be called autism. And it was not until 1980 that the diagnosis
of autism was formalized.
In 1994, the diagnosis changed again. Kids diagnosed with autism from 1980
through 1993 had to meet six mandatory criteria. The new 1994 definition
offered 16 optional criteria, only eight of which had to be met. Gernsbacher
says the 1994 diagnosis made it much easier for a child to be labeled
The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, passed in 1991,
assures appropriate public education for children with autism. Soon after,
schools began reporting high numbers of students with autism. Those numbers
keep going up. But that doesn't mean there's an autism epidemic, Gernsbacher
says, any more than increased sales of petite clothing means women are getting
"My hunch is that if we looked at the production and purchase of
petite-sized clothing we'd see a greatly increasing trend in the number of
petite-sized garments produced and purchased over the past two decades,"
she says. "Should we therefore conclude that U.S. women are getting
increasingly more petite? Probably not. There was probably always a contingent
of petite-sized women, and their needs are being increasingly better
Gernsbacher points to data from Fombonne and others suggesting that there
are 5.8 to 6.7 autism cases among every 1,000 U.S. children. If that's so, we
haven't found them all yet. Even Oregon, which led the nation with 4.3 autism
cases per 1,000 children in 2002-2003, still has a way to go. Other states lag
much farther behind.