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Editorial | autism

Struggling for a definition

THE RECENT news of a sharp rise in autism rates - 1 in 88 children, and 1 in 54 boys, are now said to be on the autism spectrum - has led to widespread fear about a fast-growing epidemic.

In fact, the full picture is slightly less alarming. The growth of reported autism cases is due largely to an increase in diagnoses, in part because doctors and parents have become more aware of the disorder and the benefits of early intervention. Rates have also risen among black and Hispanic children who might have been more likely to go undiagnosed in the past. And many of the new cases are high-functioning children with high IQs - kids who, a generation or two ago, might have been considered social misfits, offbeat or odd, and who might well have gone on to live productive, successful lives.

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Society is ill-served by giving all of those children a label as broad and debilitating as “autism.’’ The term calls to mind the most severe and devastating cases: children who can barely communicate at all, even with the parents who love them. But autism is defined on a spectrum, and the broader that spectrum becomes, the more likely it is that the milder cases receive outsized attention and resources.

It happens that the increase in autism rates coincides with a proposal to refine - and possibly narrow - the way autism is defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the standard reference guide for psychiatrists. Any change in the manual shouldn’t keep kids with true mental disorders from receiving professional help. But keeping definitions strict, and avoiding heart-stopping labels, might reduce panic, ease the burden on schools, and ensure that the worst-afflicted kids get all of the help they need.

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