Non-issues abound about autism with Trump

President Donald Trump said a few words about autism yesterday at a White House event at which he and US Education Secretary Betsy DeVos met with several educators, and what he said didn’t make advocates for kids with autism feel very comfortable about his plans, New York Magazine reports.

Check out a video of the event, beginning at about the 5½-minute mark:

As part of his discussion with an educator named Jane, who said she was the principal at a special ed center in Virginia, Mr Trump said this:

So what’s going on with autism? When you look at the tremendous increase, it’s really — it’s such an incredible — it’s really a horrible thing to watch, the tremendous amount of increase. Do you have any idea? And you’re seeing it in the school? … [Jane mentioned that she thought that about 1 in 66 or 68 kids are affected by autism.] Well now, [the rate has] got to be even [higher] than that, which is just amazing. Well, maybe we can do something.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention can confirm that the principal had the rate about right. Furthermore, it’s held fairly steady over recent years, despite the president’s claim that it had gone higher.

Mr Trump, by suggesting that autism is on the rise, may be using a common talking point of the anti-vaccination movement: that childhood vaccines cause autism in children. This notion has been debunked, and the scientific reports on which it was based have been retracted.

According to autism experts like genticist Santhosh Girirajan, the increase in autism diagnoses parallels a general decline in more generic “intellectual disability” cases. This suggests kids are just being shifted from one category to another, especially after the criteria for diagnosing autism were updated. What looks like an increasing number of autism cases may be nothing more than a shift in the threshold of what constitutes a condition on the autism spectrum. This research was reported in the journal Science back in 2015.

Autism is a fairly new diagnosis. US schools only began treating autism as a special education category in the 1990s. As a result, any (small) increase could be the result of the increased attention autism is getting in our schools or to the change in how psychiatrists diagnose autism. But there’s another possibility as well.

“There’s no consensus as to whether or not there’s been any significant increase in the actual prevalence of autism, period,” New York Magazine quoted Mr Silberman as saying. “The real debate is whether or not there has been a small increase, and there are a number of factors that could play a role in that small increase. For instance, it’s well established that older parents have more autistic kids and people are waiting longer to get married and have kids now, so there may be a small increase there.”

Using a new magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technique, doctors may now be able to tell which infants will develop autism before they reach their first birthday, the Huffington Post reports. “We view this, particularly in this high-familial risk sample, as a very real possibility of pre-symptomatic detection,” Huffington quoted Joseph Piven of the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities at the University of North Carolina as saying.

And if doctors can detect autism before it really appears, “before the consolidation of symptoms and brain deficits and at a time when the brain is most malleable,” they have a greater “chance of having an impact with early intervention,” he said.

That is remarkable: 1 year old. This is the kind of thing the government should be focused on, not on some nonsense or alternative fact about vaccines causing autism, which they don’t.

In addition to good research, Mr Trump could also devote federal dollars to programs that take care of autistic people once they leave high school, when society provides very little for them in terms of supportive services.

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.