Cases of autism used to be rare, but in the past few years the number of confirmed Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) diagnoses in Australia has risen so dramatically the medical community has been left scrambling to explain why.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) reported “enormous” growth in the number of people with autism from 2009 and then 2010 through its Survey of Disability, Ageing and Carers (SDAC). It showed that in 2012 an estimated 115,400 Australians were diagnosed with ASD, a 79% increase since 2009 when the figure was 64,400.
Autism is the largest “disability” group accessing the recently launched National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) in Australia, with 31% of NDIS participants seeking funding for autism.
In the US diagnoses of autism has increased by 78% in the past decade.
Perhaps this huge increase is the reason the myth that vaccinations caused autism lived on for so long and continues to be spread, despite being disproved by the medical community time and time again. With no explanation as to why so many children were being diagnosed with autism, people simply latched onto any explanation they could, no matter how completely wrong, misleading and damaging it was.
Other explanations for the spike in autism diagnoses have also been discounted, including the theory that autism hasn't increased in prevelence but our ability to recognise and diagnose it has. Or we've become better at measuring data and sharing it.
"The number of NDIS participants with autism indicates that growth in autism diagnoses is not, as some commentators suggest, just due to greater autism awareness and diagnosis of milder cases," Autism Aspergers Advocacy Australia explains. Other suggested causes of autism have included:
- Diet - namely gluten and dairy, refuted by Harvard Mental Health;
- Circumcision, refuted by the University of Washington;
- Hormones, disproved by the MRC Centre for Reproductive Health;
- Lack of attention during childhood, never proven;
- Pollution, chemicals, never proven.
Officially, the cause of autism remains a mystery. However lately, the conversation about autism has started changing. Instead of being considered a disease that needs to be cured, or a disorder that needs to be managed, the advantages of the autistic brain are starting to be recognised and some medical professionals are going as far as to suggest that ASD is simply the next step in human evolution.
Juan Enriquez, a Harvard academic, futurist and venture capitalist, was the first to outline this theory in detail. He explained his theory is one of the most popular TED videos of all time. To date the video has been viewed over 1.4 million times.
He explains that today's human absorbs more information in a day than our ancestors did in a lifetime and says that it's reasonable to assume prolonged information overload could result in our brains changing over the past 30 years. For Enriquez, autism is simply the next step in human evolution.
"But when you see an increase of that order of magnitude in a condition [autism] either you're not measuring it right or there's something going on very quickly, and it may be evolution in real time."
Enriquez says our ancestors did not did not absorb nearly as much information in a lifetime as we do in one day and this overload may have kicked this evolutionary process into high-gear.
Harvard academic and futurist Juan Enriquez explained his autism-evolution theory in one of the most popular TED talks of all time called, "Will our kids be a different species?".
Watch the full episode of Juan Enriquez: Will our kids be a different species?
And it's not just people with autism that Enriquez feels signify a human species in the process of rapid evolution. He also points to those with superior intelligence and anyone with a photographic memory.
People with autism often have incredible cognitive abilities. These are brain-based skills we need to complete simple and complex tasks such as memory and problem-solving. Those diagnosed with ASD often have high IQs and so-called "savants" are incredibly gifted when it comes to inventing, music and technology.
My son Giovanni, 8, was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder almost two years ago and while at first I was shattered by the diagnosis (because I didn't want his life to be any harder than it had to be) I have now started to realise how lucky he is to have autism.
He has a higher than average IQ, an incredible memory and problem-solving skills that see him scoring A's in algebra while at the same time he has trouble remembering the order in which he should complete simple tasks such as drying himself, dressing and brushing his teeth. He also has troubles when it comes to friendships and social clues.
Although we are working on it and he is improving each and every day.
His occupational therapist showed me a drawing he completed that looked like it had been printed from a computer. If you tell Giovanni to "draw a dog" he can't translate that verbal instruction and will stare blankly at the piece of paper. But if you hold up a picture of a dog and say "draw this" he will immediately replicated it easily.
When learning sight words in Kindergarten he'd need one run through as opposed to most children who required several.
He learned to read in a week.
While not the best communicator, he chooses sophisticated words such as "considering" and "vehicle" instead of "thinking" and "car".
Evolution as an explanation for autism has me cheering because I am still dealing with relatives who seem ashamed of his diagnosis and - despite the thousands of dollars I've spent diagnosing and treating it with medical professionals - seem determined to convince me that he doesn't have autism.
Or if he does, I probably shouldn't tell anyone because according to them it shames our family gene pool. I'm on the receiving end of idiotic comments such as, "Nobody on MY side of the family has autism", the message being that it clearly comes from my side.
Obviously there is much work still to be done to prove this evolutionary theory but my big takeaway from the start of this conversation is that autism is finally, FINALLY, being considered for its advantages instead of its disadvantages.
And about time.
There are companies seeking employees with autism due to the cognitive strengths such as attention to detail, superior memory and ability to focus, not to mention high general intelligence. Google and Microsoft have both promoted their efforts to employ people on the spectrum as well as a growing number of tech and science companies requiring these skills.
And the mother in me loves the idea that my beautiful little boy isn't a disease or a disorder, but an evolutionary superior human being.