Rise in autism due to increased diagnosis of mild symptoms, study finds

It is now believed that at least one per cent of Australia’s population is on the autism spectrum, that’s a 20-fold increase in the prevalence of autism over the past three decades. But it’s not because more people are being born with autism, according to a new study.


The Australian study has found the extreme rise may be due to a shift by doctors towards diagnosing children with less severe behavioural symptoms with the disorder.

The study’s findings

A West Australian study, led by  Telethon Kids Institute’s Head of Autism Research professor Andrew Whitehouse, examined the diagnostic information of 1252 West Australian children diagnosed with autism between 2000 and 2006.

The results were then published in the international journal Autism Research.

The research team looked at differences in both the percentage of newly diagnosed cases and the severity ratings of the behaviours observed and found the main increases occurred as more children with less severe behaviours were diagnosed.

They even found the number of cases rated ‘extreme’ actually dropped across the study period.

“This study provides the first clear evidence of a reduction over time in the behavioural severity of individuals diagnosed with Autistic Disorder during a period of stability in diagnostic criteria,” the researchers wrote.

“A shift toward diagnosing individuals with less severe behavioural symptoms may have contributed to the increasing prevalence of Autistic Disorder diagnoses.”

However, it is important to note that it can’t be said that all children with mild symptoms of the disorder have been incorrectly diagnosed.

Increased pressure on the NDIS

The National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) promises to “support a better life for hundreds of thousands of Australians with a significant and permanent disability and their families and carers”.

But, the high number of children with autism that qualify for funding under the NDIS has put pressure on the scheme’s sustainability, The Sydney Morning Herald reports.

A major review into the cost of the NDIS has been announced by the Turnbull government, who the ABC reports was warned in 2015 about a potential cost blowout “due to the increasing prevalence of autism, workforce and supply shortages and states’ shifting health costs”.

Parents of kids on the spectrum need support

Even a trip to a shopping centre can be overwhelming for someone living with autism.

It is easy to judge a parent trying to control a child having a meltdown who appears too old to be having tantrums, but it is worth considering what it must be like to be so overwhelmed by the saturation of sights, smells and sounds.

It is worth revisiting this video, which shows how an ordinary day is overwhelming for a child with autism.



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