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Why Did Autism Jump 150% Since 2000?

At the present time, about one in 59 American children has autism according the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The incidents of autism have been steadily rising since the year 2000, when the CDCP began keeping these statistics; this represents a 150% rise in autism in 17 years.

These statistics on the rise of autism are based on data collected from eleven communities in eleven states, including Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, North Carolina, Tennessee and Wisconsin. These communities are representative of all walks of life.

“There were more than 300,000 children living in these communities—about 8% of 8-year-old children living in the US,” noted Daisy Christensen, coauthor of the report. “And these are diverse communities, so that we can look at autism prevalence and characteristics in a number of different groups defined by race/ethnicity or by socioeconomic status.”

Over the years various causes have been proposed for autism. One of the earliest theories was that autism was caused by “refrigerator mothers”—that is, by mothers who were depriving to their infants. This theory was quickly and often angrily dismissed. Since then various experts have cited genetics, vaccinations, diseases by mothers during pregnancy and a long number of other causes. As yet, experts do not agree on a single cause for autism.

The fact that cases of autism are increasing to such a high degree rules out genetics as the single cause of autism. If an illness is caused by genetics alone, the prevalence of the illness does not rise significantly. The percentage of people who have a genetic illness in a particular population stays at the same proportion.

At the same time, many new studies have come out in recent years that support the contention that maternal depression or postpartum depression is linked with developmental arrests, including autism. Dr. Gabor Mate, who is one of those researchers, states that parental stress, especially the mother’s, causes developmental disabilities. The author of four books that explore the connection of mind, body and stress, Mate asserts that “The electrical circuitry of a child’s brain is programmed by the mother’s emotional state.”

Mate notes that the “refrigerator mother model” was dismissed, but suggests it might be on the right track after all. He points to modern society’s family structure of overworked parents and overbooked kids as an indication that the “it takes a village to raise a child” model is not working, leaving troubled kids who are then often medicated when they have problems. There seems to be less and less quality time between parents and children.

Another study shows that the annual incidence rates of postpartum depression is also rising. The Armed Services Health Surveillance Center in a new study reported that from 2007 to 2012 the incidence of postpartum depression rose each year, particularly for women who gave birth for the first time.

Dr. Mate’s theory, that modern society’s family structure of “overworked parents and overbooked kids,” strikes a cord. This culture may indeed cause parents, particularly those who are caretakers of their infants, to be too stressed out to give them the attention they need. Dr. Mate adds that we must be careful not to blame parents, who he believes are doing the best they can, but that shouldn’t prevent us from exploring the link between caretaker stress or depression and autism.

There has always been a resistance by parents to any research that suggests that they are a factor in the rise of autism. So in spite of the fact the autism is increasing and the urgency of finding out the cause, such parents and many experts become angry with anyone who proposes that caretakers of infants are in any way involved in the development of autism. Indeed, many even frown on anybody who does research that comes out with that conclusion.

It should be the welfare of our children that should be most important, not the hurt feelings of parents who wrongly feel targeted by such research. The purpose of the research is to find the cause of autism so as to prevent it from continuing to rise. If caretaker stress and depression factors in as one of the causes, then caretakers who are depressed and stressed out should receive more support, as well as their children.

Autism is a debilitating disorder that can be mild or severe, depending on where the child falls on the autism spectrum. But if it is severe, it seriously impairs the child’s functioning. Autistic children can be closed up like a fortress, almost totally withdrawn and unable to relate to people or even make eye contact with them. They often have learning difficulties and have impaired motor functioning.

What we can say with certainty is that incidents of autism will continue to rise until it becomes another epidemic, similar to the opioid epidemic in America, unless we are willing to look at things that are difficult to look at with an objective eye.

Why Did Autism Jump 150% Since 2000?

Gerald Schoenewolf, Ph.D.

Gerald Schoenewolf, Ph.D. is a licensed psychoanalyst in New York and has been practicing for over 37 years. He works with adults, couples, families, adolescents, and children. He has graduated from three psychotherapy institutes and received a Certificate in Psychoanalysis from the Washington Square Institute in 1981. He has been an Adjunct Assistant Professor of psychology at the Borough of Manhattan Community College since 2002 and has authored thirteen books on psychotherapy and psychoanalysis as well as four novels and a book of poems and drawings. More recently he wrote 20 screenplays (winning four first-place awards at festivals) and produced and directed two feature films.

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APA Reference
Schoenewolf, G. (2018). Why Did Autism Jump 150% Since 2000?. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 5, 2020, from


Last updated: 29 May 2018
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