education
February 15, 2017

Trump continues his dangerous comments on autism

During a Tuesday meeting with parents, teachers and recently-confirmed Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, President Donald Trump reportedly suggested that there has been a “tremendous increase” in US autism rates recently, despite the lack of evidence supporting such claims.

According to Mashable, the comments were made during a conversation between Trump and Jane Quenneville, a principal at a school specializing in special education in Virginia, in which the President asked Quenneville, what was “going on” with the neurodevelopmental condition, adding that “the tremendous increase” in autism rates was “a horrible thing to watch.”

In response, Quenneville cited statistics in line with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data suggesting that between 1-in-66 and 1-in-68 children tend to be diagnosed with the disorder, the website added. Trump again gave the appearance that those figures were on the rise when, according to Business Insider, he said, “maybe we can do something about that.”

So what is the truth about autism? Business Insider reported that experts found no evidence that autism incidence is on the rise, while Mashable noted that the President “is right that autism rates have increased over the long term,” but that doctors argue such figures are “misleading.”

Studies have shown a nearly three-fold increase in autism diagnoses amongst American special education programs, as well as a spike in autism spectrum disorder diagnoses, the website stated. However, a 2015 American Journal of Medical Genetics paper reported that these figures can be explained by a reclassification of patients that previously would have been diagnosed with some other form of intellectual disability.

So what do the experts say about the prevalence of autism?

Santhosh Girirajan, an assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at Penn State who was the lead author of that study, previously explained that experts have long struggled to classify disorders based on “observable clinical features.” However, he said, autism makes this “complicated... because every individual can show a different combination of features.”

In an interview with New York Magazine, autism expert Steve Silberman, author of NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity, said that there was “no consensus as to whether or not there’s been any significant increase in the actual prevalence of autism... The real debate is whether or not there has been a small increase.”

“There are a number of factors that could play a role in that small increase,” he added. “But the consensus is that there has been no huge, startling, ‘horrible,’ as Trump said, increase in autism. And the CDC estimate has been flat for a couple of years, just as they expected it to be, because the major source of the increase that started in the 1990s was broadened diagnostic criteria and much more public awareness of what autism looks like.”

A 2016 report published by the CDC found that 1-in-68 children had been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, and according to Mashable, those figures were consistent with rates from 2014. Claims that autism diagnoses are on the rise are “a talking point of the anti-vaccine movement,” which is based on a now-discredited 1998 study, said Business Insider.

Currently, it is unclear what the President intends to do in regards to autism, but reports indicate that he has previously tweeted messages sympathetic to the anti-vaxxer movement and is said to be considering establishing a committee on vaccines and autism chaired by anti-vaccine activist Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. Trump previously said that he is “in favor of vaccine,” the website noted, but added that he wants “smaller doses” delivered “over a longer period of time.”

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Image credit: Shawn Thew/EPA/Rex