Friday, December 16, 2011

More on the Autism Wars

The LA times is running series called Discovering Autism. The title is derived from the idea that Autism, long thought to be a rare disorder, is actually quite common, afflicting about 1 per cent of us. Autism diagnosis in childhood has exploded, and is now twenty times more common that a few decades back. Increasingly overwhelming evidence indicates that that difference is due mostly or entirely to earlier generations failure to spot the illness or correctly identify it.

In particular, large scale population studies show that autism is roughly as common in 80 year olds as in children. Nearly all these people went through life with no diagnosis or or an incorrect one. Some were institutionalized as psychotic, but others managed to lead somewhat normal lives.

As I've mentioned before here, usually to great derision, there is even evidence that many classed as geniuses were also autistic. Artists, musicians, physicists, chess masters, and mathematicians are frequently cited.

Both the recent explosion of the autistic population and the identification of prominent individuals as autistic are related to a broadening of the definition of autistic, in particular in the recognition that Asperger's syndrome and some similar conditions share deep connections to classical autism and that there is an Autism spectrum with afflicted individuals suffering different degrees of impairment.

Mental hospitals have largely been emptied over the last four decades, but the remaining population probably includes about 5,000 people with undiagnosed autism, said David Mandell, a psychiatric epidemiologist who led the Norristown study.

Many more are thought to be in prisons, homeless shelters and wherever else social misfits are clustered.

But evidence suggests the vast majority are not segregated from society — they are hiding in plain sight. Most will probably never be identified, but a picture of their lives is starting to emerge from those who have been.

They live in households, sometimes alone, sometimes with the support of their parents, sometimes even with spouses. Many were bullied as children and still struggle to connect with others. Some managed to find jobs that fit their strengths and partners who understand them.

Or perhaps in physics departments.