In today’s L.A. Times an article ran that advertised what seems to be a disturbing trend. According to the CDC the proportion of 8 year olds diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder has increased 50% in the past 2 years. Essentially this means that previously 1/150 children were diagnosed with the disorder while currently that number has increased to 1/100. Even more startling is the fact that 1/58 boys are now diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder. This is truly a staggering number.
Autism Spectrum Disorders refer to Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome which some researchers believe to be a milder form of Autism. In my clinical practice however, it is my belief that Asperger’s is a seperate entity from Autism. There are similarities in the two disorders but Asperger’s also has a lot in common with another highly diagnosed condition amongst boys; ADHD. Rather than believe that 8 year olds of 2009 are 50% more likely to be Autistic than in 2007, the research merely indicates that the diagnosis of Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome are being levied much more frequently.
For properly trained psychologists who understand child development Autism is hard to miss. It is estimated that around half of Autistic children are also mentally retarded. Also, Autistic children do not meet the developmental milestone of talking on time. Some are never able to communicate verbally at all. For those who can verbalize and are not mentally retarded, the tell tale signs of Autism are severe delays in speech as well as disinterest and inability to functionally participate in social relationships. Asperger’s is a bit harder to spot because this diagnosis is NOT co-morbid with mental retardation or major problems in speech. Instead the diagnostic criteria is mainly based upon difficulties with social relationships, immaturity, rigidity, concrete thinking and difficulty taking on anyone else’s perspective but their own. These criteria are much more subjective and the symptoms sound general. If one were to just use these symptoms alone to make their diagnosis, many of our friends and acquaintances would be labelled with this syndrome inaccurately.
Unless a psychologist has experience with assessing these kinds of disturbances in child development they should not be offering such diagnoses. Autism and Asperger’s are life-long developmental disabilities and their diagnosis carries a great deal of weight. Just because the media is covering these issues more as of late does not qualify all mental health practitioners to diagnose these disorders. This is why we end up with these inflated numbers that are sure to scare all perspective parents. It is my belief that children are being diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome when they actually may have other diagnoses that share some similar symptoms. ADHD and Oppositional Defiant Disorder are two other commonly diagnosed disorders of childhood that may now be getting labelled as Asperger’s by clinicians who have Asperger’s on the brain more than ever due to enhanced media coverage.
Due to the severity of Autism and Asperger’s diagnoses I would encourage all parents who have doubts about their child’s diagnosis to seek at least a second opinion from a clinical psychologist who specializes in assessment and is highly familar with these disorders. If everyone sought such second opinions I am certain that the rapid increase in these diagnoses over the past 2 years would be discovered to be spurious.
Dr. Jared Maloff