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1 in 91 Kids Has Autism -- Why?

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A pediatrician weighs in.

illustration of childs brain

One in 91 American children has an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a disturbing new study has found. In 2007, that number was 1 in 150 kids. Why is this number increasing?

Pediatrician Dr. Cara Natterson, author of the upcoming book Dangerous or Safe (which hits bookstores Thursday), says: "This study, though tragic in its results, continues to support the theory that vaccine preservative did not cause the spike in autism seen in the last two decades. There has been no thimerosal in vaccines (except flu vaccines) for more than eight years, and the incidence of autism seems to be steadily climbing. Now it is also possible that the definition of autism is changing, and the number of kids who actually have autism isn't really going up, but it's clearly not going down either. If mercury preservative were to blame, then the cohort of kids born since 2001 should have significantly lower rates of autism, and they don't appear to."

Why do you think cases of autism are increasing? Do you think environmental influences are to blame? Comment below.

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49 comments so far | Post a comment now
anon. October 5, 2009, 11:15 AM

I’ve said from the start, CLEARLY the definition of autism now covers more than it used to. DUH - there’s the rise in reportable and recordable cases. It’s not that more children have autism it’s just parents love to have more stuff to “label” their kids with so kids who were once just socially awkward are now on the “autism spectrum”. Sadly, it’s the new ADHD. We saw a significant climb in that until Autism because the cause du jour.

Robert October 5, 2009, 11:17 AM

Thank you for publicizing some rational science on the issue. This is an elegant, simple example of why the vaccine-autism link is so wrong and based on unsubstantiated anecdotes, and also why it’s dangerous (fewer innoculated kids means more spread of disease).
The simplest argument against the link though is that signs of autism can be identified well before any vaccines (especially those that *used* to have thimersol) are given. I’ve also noticed that anti-vaccine advocates are now claiming it’s the aluminum, not the mercury derivatives that are at question - talk about revisionism to fit your goal.
In the meantime, what’s causing it? No idea. Expanded diagnosis is definitely part of the issue. With more doctors diagnosing broader extremes of autism, there’s bound to be a rise. However, one might also expect that, by now, doctors would begin to be a bit more conservative on over-diagnosing. Who knows.

Selfish Mom October 5, 2009, 11:56 AM

Sounds logical. Although I’ve noticed that when it comes to autism and vaccines, logic often stays far away from the conversation.

Amber October 5, 2009, 12:01 PM

‘…it’s just parents love to have more stuff to “label” their kids with…’

I hope you didn’t really mean to write that. I never wanted my child labeled with anything.

Jenny October 5, 2009, 12:12 PM

Amber I am with you. I never wanted my child to be anything other than happy and healthy but thats not the way things are. I am so tired of people saying parents want to label there kids, while that may be true in some cases it is extremely hurtful to the majority of parents who are grieving. Its a slap in the face, not only do we have to come to terms with the diagnosis of our children but we constantly have to defend it AND ourselves. We are not monsters who WANT something wrong with our child, instead of support we are insulted.

Fran October 5, 2009, 12:23 PM

I kind of agree with the first poster. I think the rates are going up because more kids are being diagnosed than before- not necessarily because more cases are appearing. I also think that in some (but NOT ALL) cases doctors are too eager to place the blame on some sort of disorder, rather than trying to work constructively to help children without the use of medication. I also think that in the genuine cases of autism that exist, environmental factors, such as video games, tv, etc., are playing a role in this. I also agree there’s a similarity with the whole ADHD thing. As a teen it was ADD that was the big issue, and after seeing many of my friends at the time being overmedicated, I can tell you right now that ADD or ADHD is about as real in many cases as the tooth fairy- it’s just another way to pump a child full of drugs instead of letting him or her be him or herself and dealing with “problem” behavior in a rational manner.

I do want to stress that I don’t think that Autism is fake or that all cases are just lazy doctoring, but I do think some are, and that’s VERY scary to me as a parent.

Jenny October 5, 2009, 12:36 PM


Many autistic kids don’t rely on medication rather they get services such as occupational therapy and the likes.


Ame October 5, 2009, 12:42 PM

I agree with the first and sixth posters.

ADD and ADHD are also part of the Autism Spectrum and I think that is why there seems to be an increase. There are to many children misdiagnosed with ADD or ADHD. If they truely had an attention span problem then they wouldn’t be able to sit at the computer/video games for hours on end.

Monica October 5, 2009, 4:08 PM

I don’t think its the parents who want to label children (at least not all the time), its the doctors and caregivers who label children. When a child is difficult to handle they always want to stamp a name on it. He has this or she is that. For instance, my son is three and talks but some of the time he still uses gibberish. He mumbles something and you can’t understand. His words don’t come out so clear. But most of the time at home he can tell you what he wants, when and how. And we understand. Yet, some of the people I know who think they know everything, assume that he may be autistic. Well, he’s not. A speech therapist says that he is speaking but he is still developing the use of his tongue when it comes to sounds and the fact that he just needs to be around more children. When I see her she understands him perfectly even when his words aren’t so clear. He has no behavioral problems, he’s very social and he just an all around silly child. Now think had I took the advice of some of those individuals who wanted to label my child when he just need to develop pronouncing his words. Some just want to throw a name and medication at a child instead of figuring out ways to work with children. Now I’m not saying that in every case because some children are truly autistic but the reason why the stats are up is because many children are being not misdiagnosed but over-diagnosed. These days I think people would rather medicated than to work hard to solve the problem.

Jenny October 5, 2009, 4:31 PM

Could it be that statistics are up because awareness is up? Parents are more educated thanks to the internet and others who are lobbying for autism awareness. Maybe parents are just more aware that there is a potential problem whereas they wouldn’t have recognized the problem before. Also there used to be a stigma (much like there is for people with mental health issues) and people were ashamed of their kids possibly having a problem so maybe things were swept under the rug and the child was dismissed as a bit odd or eccentric.

C October 5, 2009, 6:26 PM

Ame, where did you get that ADD and ADHD are part of the Autism Spectrum? It’s not good to make stuff up and post it as though it was fact…

#1 Teacher October 6, 2009, 5:30 AM

“When a child is difficult to handle they always want to stamp a name on it”

As a teacher I can tell you the above sentiment is ridiculously prevalent among parents. I hate to break it to people, but parents do love to label their children. I constantly have parents asking me for “tell-tale” signs of Autism because their child is socially awkward/shy/different/difficult and they are CERTAIN that their child has Autism of ADHD of some label they can put on the child and be done parenting and just blame the syndrome. Its sad because parents want drugs, therapies, special rules, anything and everything so that they don’t have to raise their child. I currently have 3 students on the Autism “spectrum” in my class and I will tell you without a doubt that none of these children have Autism, yet now they get special rules in class that give them an edge over other students. I think the braodening of the definition of the illness to create the Autism spectrum has definitely been the cause of the increase and is also harming those who TRULY have Autism.

Sherry L. Lynch October 6, 2009, 7:13 AM

This comment is to C, ADD and ADHD are on the autism spectrum. And it has been for a long time. I do not believe that better diagnosing alone is responsible for the increas in autism. it may have helped drive up the numbers some, but I believe there is some environmental factors that combined with maybe a virus or shots or pollution have been the culprit. We will have to wait and see, if and when the “experts” find a cause.

Amber October 6, 2009, 8:02 AM

“#1 Teacher” - Very irresponsible of you to say that “parents do love to label their children.” I am telling you that I am a parent and I do NOT want my child labeled. Period. I spent countless dollars fighting a diagnosis that was initiated by his teacher. Does that mean that I believe that ‘teachers want to label students’…no. I’m more grounded and logical than that. I will not pass judgement on teachers because of my experience and perhaps you should rethink passing judgement on parents because of your experiences.

After many years of appointments, tests, etc. I am just now (8 years later) accepting that my child is on the spectrum. Please, try to be a little more kind. It’s not easy to accept that my child is “different”. However, the truth of the matter is that he is different.

Also, are you qualified to say ‘without a doubt’ none of these children have Autism? Are you certified to give or take a diagnosis?

I’m not trying to argue. I don’t like conflict but quite honestly, your words were hurtful.

Anonymous October 6, 2009, 9:00 AM

@Amber ~ Having been a teacher and mom-on-the-playground, there ARE parents who like to label their children. The diagnostic process and ensuing diet changes, dr visits, IEP….are their favorite topic of discussion. #1 teacher is 100% correct”….harming those who TRULY have Autism.”

Amber October 6, 2009, 9:28 AM

@Anonymous Key words here… SOME. Not all. “#1 Teacher” may have gotten one statement correct…’harming those who truly have Autism’.

Just something to think about… if your child had an illness, don’t you think it would consume you to the point where almost all of your conversations would quickly become about that illness? Are are parents supposed to sweep it under the rug and not talk about it? The times have changed. We’re allowed to talk about it. It took me a very long time to get to where I am. I NOW accept that my child is Autistic and I shouldn’t have to walk on egg shells because people *especially teachers* take issue with Autism. Leave the diagnosing to the professionals. Last I heard teachers and play ground assistants did not meet the criteria to give or take a diagnosis.

If it took me 8 years to be convinced that my child has Autism what makes a teacher think that they can diagnosis that a child does not have Autism in the matter of a school year?!?!? That is WRONG.

Dr Mom October 6, 2009, 10:31 AM

@ #1 Teacher and Anonymous 9:00: I’m pretty sure you shouldn’t be/ should never have been a teacher if you are making gross generalizations about parents wanting their children to be labeled. I have a child with multiple physically disabilities and would give anything not to have an IEP, dr. visits, diagnostic processes, dietary restrictions, etc. I’m sure the vast majority of parents with children on the spectrum feel the same way. You two make me cringe with your ignorant, hateful, judgmental garbage. Go back under the rock from which you crawled.

#1 Teacher October 6, 2009, 11:16 AM

“your ignorant, hateful, judgmental garbage. Go back under the rock from which you crawled.” WOW dr. mom - looks like my words hit a bit close to home.

I did not say ALL parents love to label their children, but apparently you took it to mean you. I stand by what I stated - I live it every day seeing parents who love to have their child labeled so that it absolves them of responsibility. And having had worked with a student who actually did have Autism, I can confirm the three on the “spectrum” in my class now do not.

Anonymous October 6, 2009, 11:20 AM

You two make me cringe with your ignorant, hateful, judgmental garbage. Go back under the rock from which you crawled.

- Dr Mom


As stated - there are parents who like to label - period. No one said all or even you.

psy93 October 6, 2009, 11:43 AM

To Sherry L Lynch and Ame, I am a child psychologist who specializes in pediatric assessment. ADHD/ADD are NOT on the Autistic Spectrum. Never have been. While some children have an autism/pdd/asperger’s diagnosis along with ADHD, this does not mean, in any way that ADHD is on the autistic spectrum. There are competely different diagnostic categories.

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