Are We Heading For “Peak Autism”?

By Neuroskeptic | September 4, 2013 6:34 pm

Inspired by this recent paper, I decided to look into the history of autism research in terms of the number of papers published per year.

I knew I’d see a recent rise in publications – but it was a lot bigger than I’d expected.

Here’s autism alongside two comparison disorders, ADHD and Down’s:

Here’s a graph of relative growth, showing the number of PubMed hits per year, divided by the hits in 2000 for each disorder (with two more comparisons)

Autism has grown by a whopping factor of x8, in just 12 years.

We are now just two thirds of the way through 2013 but there have been more papers about autism published this year than in the whole of 2011 (as pointed out by Michelle Dawson).

Such expansion can’t continue forever. Autism research must either to reach a plateau, a gradual rate of increase more in line with the growth of science as a whole¬† (4% per year) – or it will decline.

Does all of this 21st century autism boom reflect healthy growth that will be sustained? Or has it become a ‘bubble’, success driven by success – a ‘bandwagon’ onto which researchers are attracted by the fact that it is going impressively fast?

This issue is perhaps not unrelated to the question of whether diagnosed rates of autism are rising because the disorder is getting more common, or because of cultural changes in diagnostic practice.

Autism diagnoses are rising and so are autism publications. Will they peak? There’s no sign of it… yet.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: autism, graphs, history, papers, select, Top Posts
  • SuzanneSez

    I don’t think we’ve peaked yet.

    So far, most research for school age children has focused on behavioral and emotional regulation, and teaching social skills, and none have been conducted on a large scale.

    Very little has focused on educational strategies for these children. My doctoral research is focusing on technology interventions for students with Aspergers and High Functioning autism. We know many pieces of the puzzle (enlarged amygdala and hippocampus, visual learning style, etc), but putting it all together to give the student with autism a learning environment in which they will thrive has not happened yet.

  • Robert Ford

    Uh, I hate to break it to you but Bruno already covered this, in depth, *years* ago.

    • Neuroskeptic

      Looks like I’m standing on the flamboyant shoulders of giants.

  • Dorothy Bishop

    I wrote about inequalities in levels of research on different disorders a couple of years ago
    The number of publications tracks closely the level of research funding.
    Conditions that are of similar frequency and severity have very different research investments – part of the reason is lobbying by interest groups but there are other possible explanations too.

  • Jay Nomer

    I seriously think that current diagnostic practices are the problem. For example, see this:

    • Neuroskeptic

      That’s true. But that problem has been around for a while. What’s remarkable is how suddenly autism started to grow, e.g. right up until 2005, autism was researched about the same amount as ADHD.

      Then suddenly it exploded and now it’s researched twice as much as ADHD.

      What happened in 2005…? I don’t think it was diagnosis changes per se. But it might have been was kind of ‘bandwagon’ effect gathering pace.

      • Nick Stuart

        I blame the introduction of school league tables.

  • petrossa

    Papers are rising because no autism as defined in the diagnostic manuals and can be tested for accurately exists. So anyone with autistic symptoms gets enrolled in the merrygoround whether they have real autism (the neurological condition based on fetal white matter variations) or not. Better scrap the whole thing, start fresh with the neurological condition as main marker. No altered CC conforming to a autistic pattern, no autism. That way you can dump 3/4 of papers published.

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  • Robert Jensen

    Various explanations for the so-called ‘autism epidemic’ have been proposed. Expanded definiton, greater awareness and actual increases. In less than 30 years autism, depending on the definition, has gone from 4 in 10,000 to as high as 1/88. All of these explanations may play a part in increasing rates .I have a paper that explains, in part, the rising prevelance rates of autism throughout the world.

  • Pale HorseMan

    Autism is caused by the arsenic in the rice baby formula is made of. The recent explosion of US autism is due to Prez Bush upping the acceptable levels of arsenic in US food and water last decade. US rice has so much arsenic in it, China refuses to buy US rice. Don’t believe arsenic in rice causes autism? Do a study. I dare you.

    • Neuroskeptic

      So you’re saying: As + Grains = ASD Brains?

      • Sebastian

        Imagine there is no cause for autism, other than perhaps individual differences (not counting syndromal autism). Then people can keep looking for ‘a cause’ for autism for a long time. In a Danish poulation-based twin-study, the concordance rate for identical twins both being autistic was 95,2% compated to 4,3% for non-identical twins. Perhaps the idea of autism being inherited is still not widely accepted, given the effort to again and again try to find some kind of potential environmental factor for it.

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About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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