Secular, Medical Trends Fuel Perceived Autism 'Epidemic'. (Fewer Cases of Mental Retardation)

Article excerpt

SAN FRANCISCO -- Is there an epidemic of autism? Hardly, Bryna S. Siegel, Ph.D., said at a meeting on developmental disabilities sponsored by the University of California, San Francisco.

The prevalence of autism in California increased from 5 per 10,000 residents in 1987 to 15 per 10,000 in 1994; diagnoses of autism also are on the rise in other states. Yet during that same time period, diagnoses of mental retardation declined by a similar amount, dropping the state prevalence of mental retardation from about 27 per 10,000 residents to around 18 per 10,000, noted Dr. Siegel, a psychiatrist and director of the Pervasive Developmental Disorders Clinic at the university.

The connection: Changing social attitudes have shifted stigma away from autism to mental retardation. Medical residents in the 1980s found it easier to tell parents that their child was mentally retarded than to say the child was autistic. Today, the reverse is true. "The diagnosis of autism is a more socially preferred diagnosis," she said.

That's in part because today, a diagnosis of autism is associated with a higher level of services. Dr. Siegel fields numerous requests from parents to make sure that her letters to state department of developmental services regional centers include the word "autism," not just the term "pervasive developmental disability." She said that some parents have tried to bury her reports when she concludes that a child who was dually diagnosed with mental retardation and autism really has only one diagnosis--mental retardation.

"Everybody wants that higher level of service for their child. …