A recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) highlights a continuing increase in the ratio of autistic to non-autistic individuals identified in the United States. This increase, particularly among non-White children and girls, calls for a better understanding of the reasons behind the changing demographics and helps understand the continued need for a more inclusive society that embraces neurodiversity and accepts all individuals for who they are.
Understanding the Data: The 2020 ADDM Network Report
The Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring (ADDM) Network is an active surveillance program that provides estimates of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) prevalence among 8-year-old children in the United States. In 2020, the overall ASD prevalence was 27.6 per 1,000 (one in 36) children aged 8 years, with a prevalence 3.8 times higher among boys compared to girls.
For the first time, the prevalence of ASD was lower among White children than among other racial and ethnic groups, reversing the direction of racial and ethnic differences in ASD prevalence observed in the past. Black children with ASD were still more likely than White children with ASD to have a co-occurring intellectual disability.
The Importance of Acceptance and Neurodiversity: A Historical Comparison
One way to better understand the increase in ASD identification is to draw a parallel to the rise in left-handedness identification 100 years ago. In the past, left-handed individuals often faced social stigma and were pressured to use their right hand instead. As acceptance and understanding of left-handedness grew, more people openly identified as left-handed, and this shift in social perception led to a perceived increase in left-handed individuals.
Similarly, the rise in the ratio of autistic to non-autistic individuals identified can be attributed to increased acceptance and understanding of autism, rather than an actual increase in autism prevalence. The changing demographics in ASD prevalence among different racial, gender and ethnic groups suggest that better awareness and support have led to more accurate identification of autism in non-White communities, which were historically underserved.
Embracing a Neurodiversity-Centric Approach: Making the World Work for Everyone
I can’t help but view this “increase” in autism identification as a testament to the countless individuals who have been overlooked in the past because the system was not designed with their unique needs in mind. Many talking heads and media portrayals emphasize the need for additional resources and support, yet there is an alternative that could prevent such omissions from occurring in the first place. Instead of concentrating solely on diagnosing and supporting autistic individuals, we must embrace a more neurodiversity-centric approach. This involves cultivating a world that accommodates everyone by unreservedly accepting individuals for who they are, without relying on a formal diagnosis to prompt us to treat them with compassion and understanding.
By embracing neurodiversity and fostering an inclusive environment, we can help autistic individuals thrive before the diagnostic tools catch-up with society. This approach recognizes the unique strengths and contributions of autistic individuals and acknowledges that all people, regardless of their neurological differences, deserve respect and the opportunity to reach their full potential. It would also go a long way towards improving the overall mental health of every member in socitey.
The rising ratio of autistic to non-autistic individuals identified is a result of increased acceptance and understanding of autism, not an increase in autism prevalence. By drawing a parallel to the identification of left-handedness, we can appreciate how societal change has contributed to a more accurate representation of autism in our communities. As we continue to embrace neurodiversity and work towards creating a world that is inclusive and accepting of all individuals, we can foster a society where everyone has the opportunity to thrive, regardless of their neurological differences.