Monday, September 9, 2013

Autism's Tipping Point

Besides being an expert at neuroscience, to the benefit of the greater good neuroskeptic also dabbles in cultural criticism of science and healthcare with an eye toward empirical observation of the ethnocultural processes of those areas.  A bit of armchair social science, but well done.

His latest piece on the phenomenal growth of autism:

Many have observed the unnatural increase in autism over recent years.  In the midst of this apparent epidemic, news stories push "autism awareness" and "promising findings" about the cause(s) of autism.

Among practitioners, among psychiatric naysayers, among the small community of social scientists who make medicine, psychiatry and science their field of study, there has been much conjecture about the sociocultural factors behind the growth.  The usual conclusion based on observation and/or conjecture, is that the incidence of the underlying condition has probably not changed dramatically, but instead we are seeing an expanding practical definition of autism as interpreted by clinicians in the field.  You can add to this the fact of heightened awareness of the diagnosis resulting in people (clinicians, parents, teachers, etc.) seeing it where they didn't see it before (rightly or wrongly).  This, in the context of a loosely defined spectrum disorder that (like all mental health diagnoses) is determined by a check list of behavioral signs and indicators allowing for broad differences of interpretation and understanding.

Sadly the places and people with money to pay for research don't seem particularly interested in putting resources into resolving this question.

Lucky for us we have a guerrilla social science researcher in neuroskeptic who counted the number of research papers (via PubMed) on the subject of autism, relative to several other disorders.  He found that autism research has increased eight fold in 12 years, about twice the rate of ADHD (the next highest growth disorder) and maybe 4x (about) the growth of schizophrenia research.  It is hugely out of proportion to the 4% growth in science (as a whole) per year.

I might take it a step further and just state what has been clear over the last 150 years or so of psychology and psychiatry--the field, popular and professional, is driven by fads.