1 in 50 School Children Have Autism? Really?

According to http://www.foxnews.com/health/2013/03/20/health-officials-1-in-50-school-kids-have-autism/?test=latestnews, health officials report 1 in 50 school-aged children have autism.


Panic.  The masses cry epidemic, it’s getting worse, spiraling out of control.

Slow down.

Let’s consider the facts.  Here are some questions YOU SHOULD ALWAYS ask when new research is presented.

Who did the study?  The Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

What were the results of the study?  Well, the headlines read 1 in 50 School Kids Have Autism.  What it should read is 1 in 50 Parents Claim their Kid Has Autism.”

Big, big difference.

How was the study carried out?  These results were obtained via a phone survey in which only 25 percent of those contacted agreed to answer the questions.  Do you suppose most of those 25% answered the survey because they were more interested in an autism study because they at least suspect their child has autism versus parents who do not?  So another caveat to the results has to be that out of the people who agreed to participate in the survey, 1 in 50 reported their child has autism.  No proof of objective diagnoses was required, although the question presented was whether the parent had a child diagnosed with autism.  Hmm.

Strange timing for this study considering that the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual) is set to have much stricter diagnostic criteria for autism, meaning diagnoses will drop considerably and many of those diagnosed with the disorder will lose their diagnosis.  The new DSM is set for publication in May 2013 – just a month and a half from now.

Granted,  I don’t understand the timing.  It seems to me likely that the CDC will use this elevated 1 in 50 number and compare it in another year or so to the numbers of people diagnosed with autism then.  Seems a little fishy to me.  Wouldn’t you think we’ll see impressive “decreases”?  The ink on this study is still wet, and yet we are already hearing from autism advocates that this new 1 in 50 number requires more funding, more services.

Friends, there’s a reason the new DSM is getting stricter on the diagnostic criteria for autism.  My guess is simply that they recognize it is being over-diagnosed.  I’ve babysat for a child with severe autism.  I know it exists.  I know milder forms of autism truly exist.   Surely there are some children who because of their disabilities do not respond to typical behavior modification efforts.  I know the struggle and the judgment that can come because of this.   Those are the kids who will not respond even to ABA therapy, and for those children and their parents we do need to extend understanding and whatever supports necessarily.

The majority of kids “on the spectrum” do not have a condition that truly debilitates them when it comes to their behavior.   Challenges, perhaps, but all our children have behavioral challenges, well, at least all mine do.  These diagnosed kids may need things like OT, ST and PT, they may have social challenges, but to add ABA therapy to the mix with a wink and a nod denies parents the opportunity to be the chief shapers of their child’s behavior.  May it never be true that a ABA therapist or psychologist would ever care more for a child than its own parents.

What I have seen is that many parents with kids with ASD use that diagnosis not as a tool to understand better how to train their child, but use it as an excuse for the poor behavior of their child.  And the medical and therapeutic community promotes this and prescribes ABA therapy – the miracle therapy for problems associated with autism.

Let’s look at ABA therapy:

I’ll borrow some language from www.autismspeaks.org, an organization that has done much for promoting advocacy and research within the autism community.  Here’s how they explain the basics of ABA therapy – you can find the complete article here:


“ABA Techniques and Philosophy:  * The instructor uses a variety of behavior analytic procedures, some of which are directed by the instructor and others initiated by the learner.
* Parents and/or other family members and caregivers receive training so they can support learning and skill practice throughout the day.
* The learner’s day is structured to provide many opportunities – both planned and naturally occurring – to acquire and practice skills in both structured and unstructured situations.
* The learner receives an abundance of positive reinforcement for demonstrating useful skills and socially appropriate behaviors. The emphasis is on positive social interactions and enjoyable learning.
* The learner receives no reinforcement for behaviors that pose harm or prevent learning.”

(I do think ABA therapy is remiss in its emphasis in not actively addressing negative behavior, although I could see this may be a good way to initiate a behavior modification program.)

Look, I only went to community college for a couple years, but even I recognize this is based on Skinner’s  ideas about operant conditioning.  I learned that in Psychology 101.  Guys, ABA therapy is just a very regulated, extremely expensive, highly structured  and heavily monitored form of good parenting.  Our culture is demanding that good training of children should come at the expense of taxpayers and insurance companies and should be initiated by someone other than the parents.   That said, I recognize that many parents were never parented with purpose and may not have the tools to parent with purpose themselves.  In that case, ABA therapy or counseling sessions with a child psychologist with intense parental involvement may prove to be very helpful.  There’s no shame in that.  That’s a proactive response to human limitation.

If you are  struggling with the behavior of your child, whether he’s been diagnosed with a disability or not, please consider if you are actively training your child to do the things you want him to do.  Does he hate making eye contact?  Many typical children are very resistant to eye contact; give them an M&M every time they look  you in the eye when you’re speaking to them.  Better yet, stand in front of them with a small dish of M&Ms.  Say their name.  If he looks at you, great, give him a big smile and an M&M and lots of verbal encouragement.   Repeat.  Encourage him to hold the gaze longer and longer.  Reward him with another M&M and verbal encouragement.  Repeat.  Repeat.  End the session, and for the rest of the day keep those M&Ms handy and give them each time he looks you in the eye.

Does he hit and screech when he doesn’t get his way?  Remove him from the situation, give him a time out, and re-enact the offending situation, only this time talk him through the appropriate way to respond, even using hand-over-hand assistance if necessary.  This is one step beyond conditioning, it’s training.  “No, that’s not the way you do it; THIS is how you do it.”  The results from that one approach alone has transformed behavior in our home.

I am hesitant to recommend any books about child training, because I have found there to be problems with each one and I don’t want to advocate some of the suggestions.  So, please, if you read any of these, take what you want and leave the rest:

To Train Up a Child – by Michael Pearl

Shepherding a Child’s Heart – by Ted Tripp

Dare to Discipline – by James Dobson – (This is a book I would not hesitate to recommend, even though I’m not on board with 100% of what he says.  The disagreements are pretty petty.)

The Bible – Proverbs – by God.  (Unconditional endorsement here.)

How about you, are there any books you have found helpful when it comes to raising kids?

How has ABA therapy differed from your natural parenting techniques, and what was the result?


4 thoughts on “1 in 50 School Children Have Autism? Really?”

  1. Thank you. I had the same response to the ‘new study’. On one hand I understand why organizations such as Autism Speaks is trumpeting this glorified phone survey; it helps put the message out there, including those messages that therapy not be diminished. On the other hand I can’t help but be skeptical about a lot of claims regarding autism rates, and -gasp- cures that claim to be derived from scientific methods.

    1. Oh bless you for commenting. I have so little faith in any of the studies anymore. Everyone seems to have an agenda, and what’s scary is that they are so thinly veiled and yet people fall for it hook, line and sinker.

  2. It’s frustrating and very difficult when your family is affected by something very real, and it goes from “status:unknown” to “flavor of the month”. I guess they, whoever they are, got tired of diagnosing everyone, under the sun, as having ADHD. Hopefully, common sense will soon prevail!

    1. That’s a good point. We are really doing these kids a huge disservice if we label them with the flavor of the month and their true underlying issues are never identified, hence hindering appropriate diagnosis and treatment. I hadn’t thought of it that way. Geeze does anybody really KNOW anything anyway?

      Okay, I have to admit I’m pretty sure I KNOW Noah has Down syndrome. There’s just something a little fishy about his beautiful almond eyes and his contagious smile. 🙂

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