How did autism shift from being a rare disorder, occurring in 3 in 10,000 people to an "epidemic," occurring in 1 in 166 people? UNSTRANGE MINDS: Remapping the World of AUTISM (Pub date: February 1, 2007; Hardcover; $26.95), a global study of autism by Roy Richard Grinker, an anthropologist and father of a child with autism, answers this question.
Unstrange Minds begins with Roy Richard Grinker's personal story: his family's battles with the school system, the rare orchid his daughter Isabel plucked at the Smithsonian, and a day in Monet's garden that changed Isabel forever. But because Grinker is an anthropologist as well as a father, Unstrange Minds takes us across the globe-to South Korea, South Africa, Peru, and India.
Based on his work in the United States and abroad, Unstrange Minds presents the controversial idea that there is no evidence for an autism epidemic. Instead, the high rates of prevalence and diagnosis today are instead evidence that scientists are finally counting cases correctly. And this is a good thing, not only for the US but for the world, including cultures that have only just begun to learn about autism.
Unstrange Minds shows how the shift in how we view and count autism is part of a set of broader shifts taking place in societies throughout the world. The growth of child psychiatry, the decline of psychoanalysis, the internet, the rise of international advocacy organizations, greater public sensitivity to children's educational problems, and changes in public policies have together changed the way autism is diagnosed and defined.
Societies are becoming more aware of children's behavioral and learning differences at earlier and earlier ages and more comfortable with diagnosis, medication, and psychiatric labels. Under the rubric of autism we now find a multitude of emotional and cognitive problems, problems that used to be given other diagnostic labels or that were even considered within the range of the normal. Doctors now have a more heightened awareness of autism and are diagnosing it with more frequency, and public schools in the United States, which first started using the category of autism during the 1991-1992 school year, are reporting it more often, developing ways to help children with autism, and directing parents to appropriate resources. Epidemiologists are also counting it better.
As a result, the statistics on autism that we have today - 1 in 166 -- are the most accurate we've ever had.
After all these years, we have realized that autism is a major public health concern.