In the 1970s, approximately 1 in 2,000 children was reported to have autism.

The current official government estimate reports that 1 in 68 American children are affected with this condition.

A recent National Health Statistics Report suggests that 1 in 45 children, ages 3 through 17, have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.

There are literally thousands of articles and countless organizations that point a finger at various causes such as vaccines, GMOs, electromagnetic fields, and residential proximity to freeways.

On the surface, some of these claims seem possible, if not plausible. But correlation is not causation. Any alleged cause of autism can be supported by selectively reporting the data. So what is thought to be the newest explanation for this dramatic increase? A rather simple one: the definition of what constitutes autism has expanded to the catch-all term, autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Think of it this way: a broader diagnostic net is inevitably going to catch a higher yield of diagnoses. And the latest findings in this field, published in Nature Genetics, cast an even wider net.

ASDs are linked to behaviors such as a difficulty in communicating with others, maintaining friendships, and empathizing. This study suggests that social charm, empathy, and the ability to make friends are influenced by more than just practice and upbringing. It proposes that these traits are also affected by how many autism risk gene variants a person possesses. According to this study, the same genes involved in predisposing people to autism appear to influence social skills in the wider population. In fact, the study even suggests that the autism spectrum has no clear cut-off point.

Few would argue that the etiology of autism is solely genetic. While the the link to vaccines has been cast aside, a recent study published in Pediatrics by researchers with the World Health Organization and US Office of Population and Reproductive Health proposes yet another environmental risk that may heighten the chance of ASD: pregnancies in close succession.

Since the bygone era of ABBA and Watergate, the support and dedication for autism awareness has increased exponentially. Yet there is still no test, pre- or post-natal, that has the ability to test for autism. Genetics has come a long way in developing screens and tests that can assess the risk for a person to have a genetic disease that is associated with autism, such as Fragile X syndrome or tuberous sclerosis, but these methods are not the same as testing for autism and we still have a very long way to go.


Shannon Wieloch

Shannon Wieloch is a licensed board-certified genetic counselor at CooperGenomics. Her primary responsibility is to provide genetic counseling to CooperGenomics patients. Other professional roles include managing the genetic content on social media, supervising graduate students, and conducting research.

Prior to joining CooperGenomics, Shannon worked in cardiac research at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and in prenatal genetic counseling at The Delaware Center for Maternal and Fetal Medicine. She received a dual B.S. in biology and psychology from The University of Pittsburgh and her M.S. in genetic counseling from Arcadia University. Her passion is to provide comprehensive genetic education to medical professionals, patients, and the general public. In her free time, she loves to travel, doodle, play board games with her girls, and take too many pictures of her cat.