No global epidemic of autism, expert says
DUBAI // An expert dismissed speculation about a global epidemic of autism, saying that better detection methods had led to a rise in the number of cases in the past 50 years.
Dr Susan Levy, director of the regional autism centre at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, also dismissed the idea that diet or the use of vaccines could spur autism among children.
However, there remained a misconception among some doctors and communities that the use of vaccines could cause children to become autistic.
“Vaccines do not cause autism, that has become more definitive,” Dr Levy said on Tuesday at a paediatrics conference in Dubai.
She also said there was no proof that diet could lead to the development of autism among children. “Other medical conditions can be diagnosed using biological tests, but with autism we are relying on the skill of medical care providers to understand what the core symptoms are,” Dr Levy said.
“We are not aware of an increased risk that is driving up prevalence.”
Autism can be caused by genetic disorders, untreated metabolic disorders or postnatal infections. The condition can lead to impaired communication and social skills, repetitive or stereotypical behaviour and usually presents in children younger than three.
A rise in diagnosed cases since the 1960s could be a result of improved testing methods when detecting autism in children, Dr Levy said.
In 1966, the rate of autism diagnoses in England was 4.5 cases for every 10,000 children. The figure rose to 36 cases for every 10,000 children in 2001. In the United States, the figure rose from 34 cases per 10,000 people in 2001, to 147 cases per 10,000 people in 2014.
In the Arab region, Iran had the highest rates of autism at 190 children per 10,000 in 2008.
In the UAE, the last recorded figure for autism was 58 cases per 10,000 children in 2007, while in Oman, the rate was just 1.4 cases per 10,000 children in 2011.
Inequalities in results have been blamed on a lack of autism research and funding in low-income areas, because more than 80 per cent of cases were identified in areas with highly educated, white, English-speaking populations.
“There has been a fairly consistent evolution of detection rates, but it is more prevalent than we first thought,” Dr Levy said.“Early identification is seen as crucial in providing better outcomes for children. A diagnosis in children under the age of three can improve -educational planning and treatment, help reduce family stress and identify and treat certain behaviours that may interfere with progress.”
The signs that a child may be autistic include a preference to play alone, independence, poor eye contact, and if the child does not smile or appears to be in his own world.
A child may be autistic if he does not respond to being called by name, is unable to speak, is unable to tell his parent what he wants, or is unable to follow instructions.
Other indicators of autism include tantrums, hyperactivity, odd movement patterns and an oversensitivity to sounds or textures.
In the US, the American Academy of Paediatrics has developed early detection tests for autism through routine developmental surveillance of children at nine, 18 and 30 months of age.
Male infants who were born prematurely are more at risk of becoming autistic, as are those with a sibling who already has autism diagnosed.
Updated: January 26, 2016 04:00 AM