The variety of symptoms lumped together in the Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnosis is indicative of the over diagnosing of autism. Using the spectrum to define autism increases the amount of children being diagnosed as autistic and draws much needed attention to the disorder, but it is a double-edged sword, blurring the lines of what autism really is. The autism spectrum gives the same classification of autistic to children who can’t communicate verbally or live independently as it does to children who are able to carry on conversations, participate in the school band and play on a football team. The question isn’t really whether or not autism is over diagnosed, but rather, what are the affects of the over diagnosis.
With so many children being diagnosed as autistic, there is an increase in awareness and research regarding the disorder. Autism is becoming a household term. Money is being raised to fund studies regarding the causes of autism as well as to develop more effective treatments. These are good results from the over diagnosing of autism. When only 1 in 150,000 children have the disorder, it doesn’t receive the same priority treatment that it receives when 1 in 150 children have it. Though, added attention isn’t all that helpful if it is misdirected or watered down.
The downside to the over diagnosing is that the focus of research will be on the most common cases. This is great for the children on the most populated section of the spectrum, but what about the children who fall on either side of them? Autistic-like traits on the less severe end of the spectrum may take away focus from the more severe end of the spectrum. With the opening up of diagnostic criteria in the early 1990’s, more children were being termed autistic than ever before. If being tall meant over 6’ in height last week, but this week it means over 5’7”, then all of the people in the 5’7” – 5’11” range who weren’t tall last week, all of a sudden are tall this week. This may be what happened with autism. The diagnostic criteria changed to let in more children, creating the appearance of a boom of autism in the population, leading some to call it an epidemic, but it was just a change in diagnosing.
The over diagnosing of autism may be a sign of a greater problem than autism, that of our need to label and categorize everything that is different. Children who once would have been termed quirky or awkward are now put into a category of having a medical disorder. This creates problems for the child and the family. Everything changes with a diagnosis of autism. Parents need to be educated. Schools need to be able to open up services without a diagnosis. Medical practitioners need to rely less on medication for treatment. Not every child with limited social skills is autistic.
In my personal experience I have found that the concept of autism varies greatly from person to person. The spectrum of autism works well to draw attention to the issue, but how much does it really help? Perhaps, accurate diagnosing of autism would help to draw the attention to the needed areas and we would see more progress in the research of causes and treatments. Going from five cases of autism to twenty-five cases over night does nothing for those original five in terms of better understanding their situation. Autism is over diagnosed, and I don’t think it is for the better.
This article was originally written and published by me for Helium.com on October 11, 2010.
Check out my book, Secondhand Autism, in eBook or paperback. The book explains what I mean by “secondhand autism” and recounts the effect of autism on an entire family through sharing personal and family experiences. My youngest brother, Scott, is diagnosed with autistic disorder.