Bill Welsh: Investment in research is needed to curb global rise in autism

THE rate of autism in the United States has reached the level of one child in 88.

In individual states, the figures are even more alarming; New Jersey for example, has confirmed that one child in 49 has the diagnosis.

This is a sharp increase from the appalling 2006 data that documented one in 110 children with an Autistic Spectrum Disorder. As ever, health officials attribute the increase to better recognition and wider screening. To suggest that parents, doctors and teachers prior to 1990 did not “recognise” autism in children is an insult to the intelligence of all concerned. Many autistic children are non-verbal.

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The absurd “better recognition” stance will be familiar to parents of autistic children in the UK, where a figure of one child in 64 was rather furtively disclosed in 2009 by the autism research Unit at Cambridge University. This has astounding repercussions for UK public health finances. The most recent estimate of the annual cost of autism in the UK has reached £34 billion. When will this figure cross the radar of the Chancellor?

The continuing rise in autism diagnosis worldwide is inconsistent with the whole foundation on which academics and “autism experts” function. They regard autism as a genetic condition, a belief based primarily on a weak, underpowered twins study from 1977. That was superseded by a larger study last year, which concluded that only 35 per cent of autism has a genetic basis. In short, 65 per cent of the children who receive a diagnosis of autism today have been damaged by environmental factors. They are ill. Just plain sick. That the children are exhibiting “autistic symptoms” is not in doubt, but if autism is a genetic illness, then for most children this is not autism.

At a projected cost of £34bn per annum, would it not be wiser for governments to invest in research to establish the environmental factors responsible? This would potentially save billions of pounds and, more importantly, return many thousands of children to full lives.

The inconvenient truth is that most “autism” is in the wrong box and the “experts” do not have the courage to concede their historic error.

• Bill Welsh is president of the Edinburgh-based Autism Treatment Trust