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Debunking the "Autism Epidemic" Myth

Unless you've had the luxury of living under a rock for the past 20 years, chances are you've heard of the myth of there being an "epidemic" of autism cases in children, perhaps caused by vaccines or chemicals in the water. The claim that vaccines are causing an uptick in autism cases is a ludicrous notion that originated from a fraudulent "scientific" study, which was later retracted by the medical journal that published it, and disavowed by 10 of its 14 authors. In short, it's pseudo-scientific hogwash that I do not wish to devote any further space to.

In the interest of being completely transparent, I stopped getting vaccinated after childhood for my own personal reasons, and also have no plans to take the COVID vaccine. That said, I absolutely do not abide illogical and false claims, regardless of whether they support my beliefs or not.

Now, while the "vaccines cause autism" meme has no basis in reality, there's a reason that it took off so well. For decades now, people have been panicking over the supposed explosion in autism cases in children, dreading the possibility of a world filled with people who tend towards high IQs and creativity but don't always conform to current societal standards of communication and self-expression. With so much ignorance and fear surrounding the neurotype, it was inevitable that people would find a boogeyman to pin the blame for its alleged sudden proliferation on.

Firstly, I will admit that it is most likely beyond me or anyone else to 100% definitively prove or disprove whether there has been an explosion in autism cases over the past decades. However, I do have a some very solid reasons that I will present, that suggest that the so-called autism "epidemic" is almost certainly simply a combination of improved medical understanding of autism, and the world as a whole shifting towards one that increasingly irritates and exacerbates the so-called "deficits" that come with autism, making autistic people stick out from the crowd more than ever before.

I mentioned this metaphor on the Autism Myths page, and I will use it again here because it truly is the best metaphor that I am aware of for explaining the drastic evolution of medical knowledge about autism. Our Sun is technically scientifically classified as a "yellow dwarf" star, in spite of being larger than over 75% of stars in the known universe. The reason for this goofy term is because this classification was invented during an era where astronomers lacked the ability to observe all but the largest and closest stars in the night sky. Being largely limited to only seeing abnormally large stars, astronomers were forced to conclude that our behemoth Sun was a relative dwarf compared to the average star.

Much like astronomers' understanding of the diverse spectrum of stars in the universe has evolved dramatically over the centuries and led to many revisions in classifications, medical understanding of the diverse spectrum of autism has similiarly changed explosively over the past century and led to many changes in definitions. For a bit of reference as to how much change has occurred with the latter, autism was still listed in the DSM as a form of childhood schizophrenia a mere 50 years ago!!

The official diagnostic criteria for autism has shifted dramatically from the 1950s to today, going from describing a very specific subsect of what is now classified as the "low-functioning" portion of the autism spectrum as recently as the 1980s to more accurately describing the infinitely diverse rainbow that the autism spectrum is now known as today. Asperger's Syndrome, which is the area of the spectrum that many autistics such as myself fall into, was not even included in the DSM until 1994. The 1994 version of the DSM was also the first to finally officially classify autism as a spectrum.

Much like we now know that titanic stars such as VY Canis Majoris and Betelgeuse only make up a small minority in the diverse world of stars, we also know that the "classical autism" cases that the old diagnostic criterias described are only a minority in the diverse world of autistic people. And of course, much like there likely was no epidemic of smaller stars popping into existence all over the Milky Way in the past few centuries coinciding with the improvement of telescopes, there most likely was no epidemic of autistic people in the past few decades coinciding with greater scientific understanding of autism.

The pervasive yet slowly fading outdated stereotype of autism being a "development disability" is also arguably another reason why autism diagnosis rates are still increasing. In my case, I had been forced to see multiple psychiatrists as a child due to my various odd behaviours. After being put on a variety of medications and even having my brain scanned, nobody was able to figure out what was off about me and I was never diagnosed with anything. I clearly remember hearing some variation of "there's nothing wrong with you - you're extremely intelligent!"

While I do agree that there is nothing wrong with me, it amuses me that my intellect kept me from being diagnosed as a child with a neurotype that we now know tends very strongly towards above-average IQs.

I should also point out while I'm at it, that autism has been and continues to be severely under-diagnosed in women and girls. As understanding of autism continues to grow, I would predict that there will be an uptick in female autism diagnoses.

Beyond the expansion of the definition of autism, there is also good reason to believe that there existed a plethora of autistic people in the not-so-distant past whose autism was simply not noticeable enough to be diagnosed in the world they lived in. I daresay that the dreadful Industrial Revolution single-handedly swore in a world that was increasingly hostile towards autistic people, thus causing more and more of us to become noticeably divergent from the norm.

Among other things, the Industrial Revolution created a world that was increasingly louder, brighter, and otherwise more offensive to autistic people's sensory issues. It also drove larger and larger groups of people into cities in search of new employment, tearing people from their comfortable rural lives where they would rarely if ever have to interact with anyone other than the small groups that they grew up with, and forcing them to interact with total strangers on a regular basis.

Essentially, having good "social skills" suddenly became one of the most important (if not the most important) tools for success for an increasingly larger portion of the population. The "extrovert ideal", as the famous introversion advocate Susan Cain termed it, took over the world.

I can speak for myself and likely many other autistic people when I say that we can get along and interact quite well with the few people who we have gotten to know, yet can risk coming off like Joe Biden on a bad day when suddenly interacting with an acquaintance or a stranger. Many of us would likely have no heavier diagnosis than "Jill/Jim talks a bit weird, emotes kind of funny, and jumps out of their skin when someone drops a pan but they're a good worker, so whatever, at least they're not drunk all the time like Uncle Larry" had we been born over a century ago.

Incidentally, the fact that autism diagnoses have utterly exploded with all of the sordid changes brought on by the Industrial Revolution, is one large reason that I constantly argue against labeling autism a disability. Most autistic people are not inherently disabled, so much as they are disabled by the artificial conditions of the modern world. A person with a functional nose can seem very disabled to a person with smell-blindness (anosmia) who is constantly passing gas around them and listening to them complain about the stench, but I doubt any rational person would argue that they are disabled by their sense of smell.

From my perspective at least, the real issue to be concerned about isn't an imaginary rise in autism cases, but the fact that the world we have created is disabling an increasingly larger portion of the population. Autistic people are hit the hardest by it, but many introverted neurotypicals (a group that is estimated to make up a third of the population) and even some extroverts struggle to deal with how loud, bright, and fast-paced the modern world is.

If I may be allowed a moment of particular controversy, I would like to conclude my thoughts here with a relevant quote from Ted Kaczynski: "Our society tends to regard as a sickness any mode of thought or behavior that is inconvenient for the system and this is plausible because when an individual doesn't fit into the system it causes pain to the individual as well as problems for the system. Thus the manipulation of an individual to adjust him to the system is seen as a cure for a sickness and therefore as good."