Is the Autism Epidemic a Myth?

The recent upsurge in the disorder, a new book claims, can be largely explained by shifting definitions and policy changes

Steve Liss for TIME

As more kids are designated autistic, fewer are called learning disabled or retarded.

Epidemic is a powerful word. It generates bold headlines, congressional hearings, research dollars and dramatic, high-stakes hunts for culprits. It's a word that has lately been attached to autism. How else to account for the fact that a disorder that before 1990 was reported to affect just 4.7 out of every 10,000 American children now strikes 60 per 10,000, according to many estimates--the equivalent of 1 in 166 kids?

But what if there is no epidemic? What if the apparent explosion in autism numbers is simply the unforeseen result of shifting definitions, policy changes and increased awareness among parents, educators and...

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