If you look just at the numbers, you might think autism rates are spiraling out of control. The rates seemed high enough at 1 in 150 in 2000, when public health officials started tracking a steady rise in the syndrome in the United States. And by the time estimates finally flatlined in 2012 at 1 in 68, many parents had embraced unfounded theories blaming vaccines for an autism “epidemic,” helping to fuel outbreaks of measles and other once rare diseases.
Experts, however, attribute most of the upsurge to increased awareness, better access to services, and expanded criteria to diagnose the neurodevelopmental syndrome, which is characterized by restricted interests or behaviors and problems with communication and social interactions.
Autism is remarkably diverse, encompassing a wide spectrum of disabilities and gifts. “If you’ve met one child with autism,” parents and clinicians like to say, “you’ve met one child with autism.” That heterogeneity, which also includes a range of physical ailments, has made the search for autism’s causes a daunting task.
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