|This is an American graph - the trend here is similar.|
Back when Adam played second row for Valleys (1971 to be precise) and I started teaching in special schools, to encounter a child with Autism was a rare event.
From memory, in the school where I worked at the time, with an enrolment of about 70, there was one. He was also profoundly deaf, so some of the non-communicative behaviours he exhibited may have been as much a function of his hearing loss, as of Autism.
Contrast that with the situation these days. When I retired as a special school principal in 2005, over a third of my school population was classified as being on the spectrum*.
It's over diagnosis, I hear you say.
Perhaps - there is a process available (called Verification in Queensland) which identifies these kids, gets them diagnosed, and acquires additional resources to support them in their schools. Indeed, a large part of the work I do is guiding schools through these processes. Sometimes I feel more like an auditor than a teacher.
Other states have similar protocols.
Having said that seeking to support these children inevitably results in more of them being identified, but there's much more than over diagnosis happening, if it's happening at all.
There are simply more of these kids around. Anyone who has been at the chalk face as long as I have (over forty years) will tell you that. It's also backed up in the research. The incidence rate keeps rising.
So what's going on?
Is it diet? Has the advent of supermarkets and the necessity to apply preservatives to food which is going to sit on the shelf for a while having a cumulative effect?
Is it lifestyle? Is the exposure of the developing brain to screens rather than parental care an issue? Is the fact that many children these days spend less time in those vital years between age one and four communicating with their parents because of work commitments having an influence?
Are we so worried about childhood security that we don't allow our kids to bounce off the physical environment in the fashion that I did when I was growing up in the bush? Does this "cotton woolling" of the developing body (and the developing brain) prevent the normal development of the nervous system? We're only just beginning to appreciate the importance of the role that sensory integration has in both social and intellectual development.
And yet, there are so many kids who have had early childhoods that feature all these normal developmental exposures who are profoundly affected. How do you explain the phenomenon of children reared in identical family situations to their siblings presenting with Autism, when these siblings do not?
Does pollution, especially from vehicle exhausts, have anything to do with it?
I could go on - there are so many questions.
The point is, something has changed, the incidence rate is increasing at an alarming rate, and we need to spend some serious research money on this problem before the costs of not doing so come back to bite us.
"Us" being schools and parents all over the country.
*Spectrum - diagnosing Autism is subjective - the DSM - V describes a range or band of individuals who can be diagnosed.