It's easy to get caught up in the idea that the rise in autism spectrum diagnoses is related to a conspiracy of some sort. After all, the idea is touted in an awful lot of blogs and websites which suggest a causal connection between autism and a huge range of technological advances and changes. They show a temporal coincidence (the rise/first occurence of autism happened at the same time as X), and then say something like "Coincidence? I think not!"
Just today, a commenter wrote this response to one of my recent blog posts:
There was never a reported case of autism until the 1930's which was shortly after the use of mercury as a preservative in vaccines. No connection?
In fact, of course, there couldn't possibly be a connection. No one was being diagnosed with what we call "autism spectrum disorders" in the 1930's because Dr. Kanner, who coined the term "autism" (Greek for "self"), didn't do so until 1943.
And the rapid rise of autism SPECTRUM diagnoses, which is what most conspiracists are reacting to, didn't occur until after the term "autism spectrum disorder" was added to the diagnostic literature. That happened in 1994, when Asperger syndrome and PDD-NOS -- two very large categories of "sub clinical" autism were added to what is now considered a spectrum disorder.
Obviously, I can't tell you whether there is some conspiracy somewhere to injure our children - though I seriously doubt that such is the case. I don't know what causes autism in the vast majority of cases (though I do know that about 20% of cases can be explained by specific issues ranging from Fragile X Syndrome to maternal use of certain drugs).
I can say, however, that the fast rise in autism spectrum diagnoses did occur at the same time that the diagnostic criteria expanded radically -- and at the same time that autism as a category was added to the record-keeping system for the Department of Education in the United States.
Coincidence? I think not!