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Is autism just the new ADHD?

By Dana Blankenhorn | Oct 5, 2009

A report in the journal Pediatrics says that over 1% of all children born in 1996 may have been diagnosed with autism. It is causing enormous controversy. (Photograph by the author.)

Some of the controversy might go away if the whole release were understood. The same report showed 40% of parents whose kids were diagnosed as autistic presently saw no autism in their kids.

Autism is not thought to be curable.

So if the incidence of a supposedly incurable condition rises 40%, and 40% of those who said they were given the diagnosis no longer have symptoms, was the diagnosis 100% accurate?

Or is the autism diagnosis just becoming more popular, a way for therapists to demand that someone pay attention to a kid who might otherwise fall through the cracks?

Another important point, raised by officials who talked to the press, is that unspecified development disorders and Asperger Syndrome are now being classified as being on the “autism spectrum.” In other words, these are not apples-to-apples comparisons, but apples-to-apples-and-pears comparisons.

I have personal experience of this.

My son was first diagnosed with ADHD at age 7. No big deal, I learned I’d been diagnosed at age 9. His diagnosis was repeated at age 9.

When he was moved to the public school system starting in 7th grade, the system ignored his ADHD for five years. They treated him as a disciplinary problem. I’ve written about this. It has, so far, helped keep him out of college because he was suspended multiple times during those years for what were ADHD outbursts of frustration.

But when the school district finally did have him see a psychologist, in 11th grade, she diagnosed Asperger Syndrome. He’s very smart, he has severe ADHD, he must be Einstein. The diagnosis got the district’s attention and he had no further discipline problems.

Perhaps an ADHD diagnosis might not have worked as well.

How common might this story be? Probably more common than anyone will admit.

Diagnosis of psychological conditions in young children is made difficult by the fact their psychologies have not fully developed. A label of any sort acts as a convenient shorthand that implies some increased attention, and perhaps forgiveness for acting out.

ADHD travels in fast company. Sometimes it comes with learning disabilities. Asperger seems to sit in many minds at the intersection of ADHD and autism.

The real lesson here is we need to pay closer attention to individual children, as a society. Each one is unique, with unique strengths and weaknesses. Lumping them into groups, treating them as piles of identical symptom sets, does no one any good.

Autism may indeed be the new ADHD, the label du jour we need to give a kid the attention they deserve.