Dr. James Coplan, a developmental pediatrician with four decades of experience with special needs children, argues in Psychology Today that there is no increase in incidence of autism. Dr. Coplan distinguishes between autism prevalence which he describes as rates of autism diagnosis and rates of autism incidence which he describes as rates of autism occurrence . The essence of the Coplan autism epidemic denial has been heard before and is obviously partially correct. The changes in diagnostic definitions of autism from the DSM-III to the DSM-IV have expanded dramatically the numbers of persons described as autistic. I agree with that observation and I don't know of anyone who disagrees with it. The problem is that those diagnostic definition changes do not necessarily explain the entire, startling increase.
Dr. Coplan does not really provide any credible argument or evidence to show that the entire startling, increase in autism diagnoses results from the 1994 diagnostic changes. Since my son was diagnosed 12 years ago (and his diagnosis is Autistic Disorder, assessed with profound developmental delays) the reported rates of autism, the autism prevalence as described by Dr. Coplan, have literally skyrocketed. From 1 in 500 to 1 in 110 with the most recent increase from 1in 150 to 1 in 110 occurring over a two year period, long after the DSM-IV changes. Dr. Coplan simply provides no compelling argument or evidence to support his rigid thinking that the increase is explained entirely by the diagnostic changes, increased awareness or the internet as some are now using to spice up the denial argument.
Another problem for Dr. Coplan is that he is not criticizing parents of autism children , celebrities, or doctors who do not follow medical "consensus" with his argument. It is easy to mock, ridicule and belittle a celebrity actress autism mom when defending the safety of vaccines (even though it is an irrational strategy which simply creates more suspicion of health authorities). It is much more difficult to ridicule the CDC which compiles the autism prevalence rates. It is much more difficult to mock the IACC which has published information indicating that only about 40-50% of the increase can be explained by the 1994 diagnostic change and social ascertainment factors.
Another huge problem for Dr. Coplan is that his argument ignores any possible environmental factors as causes or triggers of autism disorders. If autism incidence, rather than diagnosis, has remained constant than that supports the decades old thinking that autism was entirely genetic; that no environmental factors were involved. That paradigm was never much more than an assumption to begin with but it is now giving way to a new paradigm; one that views autism disorders as resulting from the interaction of genetic and environmental factors.
That autism paradigm shift is remarkable in its own right given the fact that autism research funding has been directed overwhelmingly toward genetic research at the expense of environmentally focused research. In other words if you look at the sky you will see the sky. If you look at the ground you will see the ground. If you do genetic research .... well you will find that in 3% of cases studies persons with autism had common genetic processes all of which were unique to the individuals involved. YUP after decades of genetic research that's all we got. With a shift toward more environmental autism research we are likely to find more environmental triggers of autism disorders ... and more information to explain the startling increases in autism incidence.
This humble autism dad in small town New Brunswick, Canada does not need a distinguished pediatrician like Dr. Coplan to convince me that the DSM-IV expanded the numbers of those diagnosed with autism. And I agree with him that the DSM-5 will continue that expansion. A great danger of that future expansion is that the obsession with genetics will once again be supported by the inability to distinguished autism prevalence and incidence because of a new DSM change. The environmental aspect of autism disorders, the environmental triggers of autism disorders, which may essentially be synaptic disorders, will be neglected and the real increase in autism incidence denied and obscured again.
Dr. Coplan's decades of pediatric experience should be respected and valued but they should also be seen as potential obstacles to new thinking, new paradigms and new evidence from credible authorities, like the CDC and the IACC. Researchers like Dr. Irva Hertz-Picciotto, who has said that we need more environmental focused research to help us understand what is happening, should be heeded and their opinions valued. We have to move to a new paradigm and abandon the old assumptions that autism is entirely genetic, that autism is not actually increasing, if we are to understand what is causing these autism disorders that may be synaptic disorders.