A new study by UC Davis researchers has found that autism diagnoses occur more frequently among populations that are older, more educated and whiter than average. The same study found no link between exposure to pollution and the incidence of autism.
This is the part that I found to be most striking, but not altogether surprising: Children of parents who finished college were at least four times more likely to be diagnosed than children of parents who didn’t finish high school. Autism clusters are popping up in educated populations for the same reason that these populations are generally healthier than average–they go to the doctor more often.
And what about the less educated? Parents who didn’t finish high school are less likely to have health insurance and may be less likely to access and properly evaluate relevent information. At the risk of over-generalizing, I’d say that they are also more likely to encounter employer resistance (or loss of pay) when missing work for the multiple visits to pediatricians and specialists that typically precede a formal diagnosis. Uneducated parents may also be less likely to realize that a diagnosis is often necessary to receive services that are paid for by school districts or insurance companies. So the number of undiagnosed cases among the less educated has not fallen as sharply as it has among the more educated.
The results of this study are generally consistent with the theory that greater awareness is a considerable factor in the recent spike in autism prevalence across all populations. Here in New Jersey, we have the highest rate of autism, and the second highest personal income per capita in the country. We’re educated, we have medical insurance (we recently demanded more coverage) and we get on waiting lists to see developmental pediatricians who can give our kids a diagnosis.
So are autism clusters a good thing or a bad thing? Not entirely sure, but increased awareness would even things out a bit.