Why Are Autism Rates Steadily Rising?
Stefania Sterling was just 21 when she had her son, Charlie. She was young and healthy, with no genetic issues apparent in either her or her husband's family, so she expected Charlie to be typical.
"It is surprising that the prevalence of a significant disorder like autism has risen so consistently over a relatively brief period."
It wasn't until she went to a Mommy and Me music class when he was one, and she saw all the other one-year-olds walking, that she realized how different her son was. He could barely crawl, didn't speak, and made no eye contact. By the time he was three, he was diagnosed as being on the lower functioning end of the autism spectrum.
She isn't sure why it happened – and researchers, too, are still trying to understand the basis of the complex condition. Studies suggest that genes can act together with influences from the environment to affect development in ways that lead to Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). But rates of ASD are rising dramatically, making the need to figure out why it's happening all the more urgent.
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Indeed, the CDC's latest autism report, released last week, which uses 2016 data, found that the prevalence of ASD in four-year-old children was one in 64 children, or 15.6 affected children per 1,000. That's more than the 14.1 rate they found in 2014, for the 11 states included in the study. New Jersey, as in years past, was the highest, with 25.3 per 1,000, compared to Missouri, which had just 8.8 per 1,000.
The rate for eight-year-olds had risen as well. Researchers found the ASD prevalence nationwide was 18.5 per 1,000, or one in 54, about 10 percent higher than the 16.8 rate found in 2014. New Jersey, again, was the highest, at one in 32 kids, compared to Colorado, which had the lowest rate, at one in 76 kids. For New Jersey, that's a 175 percent rise from the baseline number taken in 2000, when the state had just one in 101 kids.
"It is surprising that the prevalence of a significant disorder like autism has risen so consistently over a relatively brief period," said Walter Zahorodny, an associate professor of pediatrics at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, who was involved in collecting the data.
The study echoed the findings of a surprising 2011 study in South Korea that found 1 in every 38 students had ASD. That was the the first comprehensive study of autism prevalence using a total population sample: A team of investigators from the U.S., South Korea, and Canada looked at 55,000 children ages 7 to 12 living in a community in South Korea and found that 2.64 percent of them had some level of autism.
Searching for Answers
Scientists can't put their finger on why rates are rising. Some say it's better diagnosis. That is, it's not that more people have autism. It's that we're better at detecting it. Others attribute it to changes in the diagnostic criteria. Specifically, the May 2013 update of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-5 -- the standard classification of mental disorders -- removed the communication deficit from the autism definition, which made more children fall under that category. Cynical observers believe physicians and therapists are handing out the diagnosis more freely to allow access to services available only to children with autism, but that are also effective for other children.
Alycia Halladay, chief science officer for the Autism Science Foundation in New York, said she wishes there were just one answer, but there's not. While she believes the rising ASD numbers are due in part to factors like better diagnosis and a change in the definition, she does not believe that accounts for the entire rise in prevalence. As for the high numbers in New Jersey, she said the state has always had a higher prevalence of autism compared to other states. It is also one of the few states that does a good job at recording cases of autism in its educational records, meaning that children in New Jersey are more likely to be counted compared to kids in other states.
"Not every state is as good as New Jersey," she said. "That accounts for some of the difference compared to elsewhere, but we don't know if it's all of the difference in prevalence, or most of it, or what."
"What we do know is that vaccinations do not cause autism."
There is simply no defined proven reason for these increases, said Scott Badesch, outgoing president and CEO of the Autism Society of America.
"There are suggestions that it is based on better diagnosis, but there are also suggestions that the incidence of autism is in fact increasing due to reasons that have yet been determined," he said, adding, "What we do know is that vaccinations do not cause autism."
Zahorodny, the pediatrics professor, believes something is going on beyond better detection or evolving definitions.
"Changes in awareness and shifts in how children are identified or diagnosed are relevant, but they only take you so far in accounting for an increase of this magnitude," he said. "We don't know what is driving the surge in autism recorded by the ADDM Network and others."
He suggested that the increase in prevalence could be due to non-genetic environmental triggers or risk factors we do not yet know about, citing possibilities including parental age, prematurity, low birth rate, multiplicity, breech presentation, or C-section delivery. It may not be one, but rather several factors combined, he said.
"Increases in ASD prevalence have affected the whole population, so the triggers or risks must be very widely dispersed across all strata," he added.
There are studies that find new risk factors for ASD almost on a daily basis, said Idan Menashe, assistant professor in the Department of Health at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, the fastest growing research university in Israel.
"There are plenty of studies that find new genetic variants (and new genes)," he said. In addition, various prenatal and perinatal risk factors are associated with a risk of ASD. He cited a study his university conducted last year on the relationship between C-section births and ASD, which found that exposure to general anesthesia may explain the association.
Whatever the cause, health practitioners are seeing the consequences in real time.
"People say rates are higher because of the changes in the diagnostic criteria," said Dr. Roseann Capanna-Hodge, a psychologist in Ridgefield, CT. "And they say it's easier for children to get identified. I say that's not the truth and that I've been doing this for 30 years, and that even 10 years ago, I did not see the level of autism that I do see today."
Sure, we're better at detecting autism, she added, but the detection improvements have largely occurred at the low- to mid- level part of the spectrum. The higher rates of autism are occurring at the more severe end, in her experience.
A Polarizing Theory
Among the more controversial risk factors scientists are exploring is the role environmental toxins may play in the development of autism. Some scientists, doctors and mental health experts suspect that toxins like heavy metals, pesticides, chemicals, or pollution may interrupt the way genes are expressed or the way endocrine systems function, manifesting in symptoms of autism. But others firmly resist such claims, at least until more evidence comes forth. To date, studies have been mixed and many have been more associative than causative.
"Today, scientists are still trying to figure out whether there are other environmental changes that can explain this rise, but studies of this question didn't provide any conclusive answer," said Menashe, who also serves as the scientific director of the National Autism Research Center at BGU.
"It's not everything that makes Charlie. He's just like any other kid."
That inconclusiveness has not dissuaded some doctors from taking the perspective that toxins do play a role. "Autism rates are rising because there is a mismatch between our genes and our environment," said Julia Getzelman, a pediatrician in San Francisco. "The majority of our evolution didn't include the kinds of toxic hits we are experiencing. The planet has changed drastically in just the last 75 years –- it has become more and more polluted with tens of thousands of unregulated chemicals being used by industry that are having effects on our most vulnerable."
She cites BPA, an industrial chemical that has been used since the 1960s to make certain plastics and resins. A large body of research, she says, has shown its impact on human health and the endocrine system. BPA binds to our own hormone receptors, so it may negatively impact the thyroid and brain. A study in 2015 was the first to identify a link between BPA and some children with autism, but the relationship was associative, not causative. Meanwhile, the Food and Drug Administration maintains that BPA is safe at the current levels occurring in food, based on its ongoing review of the available scientific evidence.
Michael Mooney, President of St. Louis-based Delta Genesis, a non-profit organization that treats children struggling with neurodevelopmental delays like autism, suspects a strong role for epigenetics, which refers to changes in how genes are expressed as a result of environmental influences, lifestyle behaviors, age, or disease states.
He believes some children are genetically predisposed to the disorder, and some unknown influence or combination of influences pushes them over the edge, triggering epigenetic changes that result in symptoms of autism.
For Stefania Sterling, it doesn't really matter how or why she had an autistic child. That's only one part of Charlie.
"It's not everything that makes Charlie," she said. "He's just like any other kid. He comes with happy moments. He comes with sad moments. Just like my other three kids."
Today’s podcast guest is Rosalind Picard, a researcher, inventor named on over 100 patents, entrepreneur, author, professor and engineer. When it comes to the science related to endowing computer software with emotional intelligence, she wrote the book. It’s published by MIT Press and called Affective Computing.
Dr. Picard is founder and director of the MIT Media Lab’s Affective Computing Research Group. Her research and engineering contributions have been recognized internationally. For example, she received the 2022 International Lombardy Prize for Computer Science Research, considered by many to be the Nobel prize in computer science.
Through her research and companies, Dr. Picard has developed wearable sensors, algorithms and systems for sensing, recognizing and responding to information about human emotion. Her products are focused on using fitness trackers to advance clinical quality treatments for a range of conditions.
Meanwhile, in just the past few years, numerous fitness tracking companies have released products with their own stress sensors and systems. You may have heard about Fitbit’s Stress Management Score, or Whoop’s Stress Monitor – these features and apps measure things like your heart rhythm and a certain type of invisible sweat to identify stress. They’re designed to raise awareness about forms of stress such as anxieties and anger, and suggest strategies like meditation to relax in real time when stress occurs.
But how well do these off-the-shelf gadgets work? There’s no one more knowledgeable and experienced than Rosalind Picard to explain the science behind these stress features, what they do exactly, how they might be able to help us, and their current shortcomings.
Dr. Picard is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and a Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors, and a popular speaker who’s given over a hundred invited keynote talks and a TED talk with over 2 million views. She holds a Bachelors in Electrical Engineering from Georgia Tech, and Masters and Doctorate degrees in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from MIT. She lives in Newton, Massachusetts with her husband, where they’ve raised three sons.
In our conversation, we discuss stress scores on fitness trackers to improve well-being. She describes the difference between commercial products that might help people become more mindful of their health and products that are FDA approved and really capable of advancing the science. We also talk about several fascinating findings and concepts discovered in Dr. Picard’s lab including the multiple arousal theory, a phenomenon you’ll want to hear about. And we explore the complexity of stress, one reason it’s so tough to measure. For example, many forms of stress are actually good for us. Can fitness trackers tell the difference between stress that’s healthy and unhealthy?
- Dr. Picard’s book, Affective Computing
- Dr. Picard’s bio
- Dr. Picard on Twitter
- Dr. Picard’s company, Empatica - https://www.empatica.com/ - The FDA-cleared Empatica Health Monitoring Platform provides accurate, continuous health insights for researchers and clinicians, collected in the real world
- Empatica Twitter
- Dr. Picard and her team have published hundreds of peer-reviewed articles across AI, Machine Learning, Affective Computing, Digital Health, and Human-computer interaction.
- Dr. Picard’s TED talk
If you look back on the last century of scientific achievements, you might notice that most of the scientists we celebrate are overwhelmingly white, while scientists of color take a backseat. Since the Nobel Prize was introduced in 1901, for example, no black scientists have landed this prestigious award.
The work of black women scientists has gone unrecognized in particular. Their work uncredited and often stolen, black women have nevertheless contributed to some of the most important advancements of the last 100 years, from the polio vaccine to GPS.
Here are five black women who have changed science forever.
Dr. May Edward Chinn
Dr. May Edward Chinn practicing medicine in Harlem
George B. Davis, PhD.
Chinn was born to poor parents in New York City just before the start of the 20th century. Although she showed great promise as a pianist, playing with the legendary musician Paul Robeson throughout the 1920s, she decided to study medicine instead. Chinn, like other black doctors of the time, were barred from studying or practicing in New York hospitals. So Chinn formed a private practice and made house calls, sometimes operating in patients’ living rooms, using an ironing board as a makeshift operating table.
Chinn worked among the city’s poor, and in doing this, started to notice her patients had late-stage cancers that often had gone undetected or untreated for years. To learn more about cancer and its prevention, Chinn begged information off white doctors who were willing to share with her, and even accompanied her patients to other clinic appointments in the city, claiming to be the family physician. Chinn took this information and integrated it into her own practice, creating guidelines for early cancer detection that were revolutionary at the time—for instance, checking patient health histories, checking family histories, performing routine pap smears, and screening patients for cancer even before they showed symptoms. For years, Chinn was the only black female doctor working in Harlem, and she continued to work closely with the poor and advocate for early cancer screenings until she retired at age 81.
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Alice Ball was a chemist best known for her groundbreaking work on the development of the “Ball Method,” the first successful treatment for those suffering from leprosy during the early 20th century.
In 1916, while she was an undergraduate student at the University of Hawaii, Ball studied the effects of Chaulmoogra oil in treating leprosy. This oil was a well-established therapy in Asian countries, but it had such a foul taste and led to such unpleasant side effects that many patients refused to take it.
So Ball developed a method to isolate and extract the active compounds from Chaulmoogra oil to create an injectable medicine. This marked a significant breakthrough in leprosy treatment and became the standard of care for several decades afterward.
Unfortunately, Ball died before she could publish her results, and credit for this discovery was given to another scientist. One of her colleagues, however, was able to properly credit her in a publication in 1922.
onathan Newton/The Washington Post/Getty
The person who arguably contributed the most to scientific research in the last century, surprisingly, wasn’t even a scientist. Henrietta Lacks was a tobacco farmer and mother of five children who lived in Maryland during the 1940s. In 1951, Lacks visited Johns Hopkins Hospital where doctors found a cancerous tumor on her cervix. Before treating the tumor, the doctor who examined Lacks clipped two small samples of tissue from Lacks’ cervix without her knowledge or consent—something unthinkable today thanks to informed consent practices, but commonplace back then.
As Lacks underwent treatment for her cancer, her tissue samples made their way to the desk of George Otto Gey, a cancer researcher at Johns Hopkins. He noticed that unlike the other cell cultures that came into his lab, Lacks’ cells grew and multiplied instead of dying out. Lacks’ cells were “immortal,” meaning that because of a genetic defect, they were able to reproduce indefinitely as long as certain conditions were kept stable inside the lab.
Gey started shipping Lacks’ cells to other researchers across the globe, and scientists were thrilled to have an unlimited amount of sturdy human cells with which to experiment. Long after Lacks died of cervical cancer in 1951, her cells continued to multiply and scientists continued to use them to develop cancer treatments, to learn more about HIV/AIDS, to pioneer fertility treatments like in vitro fertilization, and to develop the polio vaccine. To this day, Lacks’ cells have saved an estimated 10 million lives, and her family is beginning to get the compensation and recognition that Henrietta deserved.
Dr. Gladys West
Gladys West was a mathematician who helped invent something nearly everyone uses today. West started her career in the 1950s at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division in Virginia, and took data from satellites to create a mathematical model of the Earth’s shape and gravitational field. This important work would lay the groundwork for the technology that would later become the Global Positioning System, or GPS. West’s work was not widely recognized until she was honored by the US Air Force in 2018.
Dr. Kizzmekia "Kizzy" Corbett
At just 35 years old, immunologist Kizzmekia “Kizzy” Corbett has already made history. A viral immunologist by training, Corbett studied coronaviruses at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and researched possible vaccines for coronaviruses such as SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome).At the start of the COVID pandemic, Corbett and her team at the NIH partnered with pharmaceutical giant Moderna to develop an mRNA-based vaccine against the virus. Corbett’s previous work with mRNA and coronaviruses was vital in developing the vaccine, which became one of the first to be authorized for emergency use in the United States. The vaccine, along with others, is responsible for saving an estimated 14 million lives.
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago.