Why Are Autism Rates Steadily Rising?
Stefania Sterling was just 21 when she had her son, Charlie. She was young and healthy, with no genetic issues apparent in either her or her husband's family, so she expected Charlie to be typical.
"It is surprising that the prevalence of a significant disorder like autism has risen so consistently over a relatively brief period."
It wasn't until she went to a Mommy and Me music class when he was one, and she saw all the other one-year-olds walking, that she realized how different her son was. He could barely crawl, didn't speak, and made no eye contact. By the time he was three, he was diagnosed as being on the lower functioning end of the autism spectrum.
She isn't sure why it happened – and researchers, too, are still trying to understand the basis of the complex condition. Studies suggest that genes can act together with influences from the environment to affect development in ways that lead to Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). But rates of ASD are rising dramatically, making the need to figure out why it's happening all the more urgent.
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Indeed, the CDC's latest autism report, released last week, which uses 2016 data, found that the prevalence of ASD in four-year-old children was one in 64 children, or 15.6 affected children per 1,000. That's more than the 14.1 rate they found in 2014, for the 11 states included in the study. New Jersey, as in years past, was the highest, with 25.3 per 1,000, compared to Missouri, which had just 8.8 per 1,000.
The rate for eight-year-olds had risen as well. Researchers found the ASD prevalence nationwide was 18.5 per 1,000, or one in 54, about 10 percent higher than the 16.8 rate found in 2014. New Jersey, again, was the highest, at one in 32 kids, compared to Colorado, which had the lowest rate, at one in 76 kids. For New Jersey, that's a 175 percent rise from the baseline number taken in 2000, when the state had just one in 101 kids.
"It is surprising that the prevalence of a significant disorder like autism has risen so consistently over a relatively brief period," said Walter Zahorodny, an associate professor of pediatrics at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, who was involved in collecting the data.
The study echoed the findings of a surprising 2011 study in South Korea that found 1 in every 38 students had ASD. That was the the first comprehensive study of autism prevalence using a total population sample: A team of investigators from the U.S., South Korea, and Canada looked at 55,000 children ages 7 to 12 living in a community in South Korea and found that 2.64 percent of them had some level of autism.
Searching for Answers
Scientists can't put their finger on why rates are rising. Some say it's better diagnosis. That is, it's not that more people have autism. It's that we're better at detecting it. Others attribute it to changes in the diagnostic criteria. Specifically, the May 2013 update of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-5 -- the standard classification of mental disorders -- removed the communication deficit from the autism definition, which made more children fall under that category. Cynical observers believe physicians and therapists are handing out the diagnosis more freely to allow access to services available only to children with autism, but that are also effective for other children.
Alycia Halladay, chief science officer for the Autism Science Foundation in New York, said she wishes there were just one answer, but there's not. While she believes the rising ASD numbers are due in part to factors like better diagnosis and a change in the definition, she does not believe that accounts for the entire rise in prevalence. As for the high numbers in New Jersey, she said the state has always had a higher prevalence of autism compared to other states. It is also one of the few states that does a good job at recording cases of autism in its educational records, meaning that children in New Jersey are more likely to be counted compared to kids in other states.
"Not every state is as good as New Jersey," she said. "That accounts for some of the difference compared to elsewhere, but we don't know if it's all of the difference in prevalence, or most of it, or what."
"What we do know is that vaccinations do not cause autism."
There is simply no defined proven reason for these increases, said Scott Badesch, outgoing president and CEO of the Autism Society of America.
"There are suggestions that it is based on better diagnosis, but there are also suggestions that the incidence of autism is in fact increasing due to reasons that have yet been determined," he said, adding, "What we do know is that vaccinations do not cause autism."
Zahorodny, the pediatrics professor, believes something is going on beyond better detection or evolving definitions.
"Changes in awareness and shifts in how children are identified or diagnosed are relevant, but they only take you so far in accounting for an increase of this magnitude," he said. "We don't know what is driving the surge in autism recorded by the ADDM Network and others."
He suggested that the increase in prevalence could be due to non-genetic environmental triggers or risk factors we do not yet know about, citing possibilities including parental age, prematurity, low birth rate, multiplicity, breech presentation, or C-section delivery. It may not be one, but rather several factors combined, he said.
"Increases in ASD prevalence have affected the whole population, so the triggers or risks must be very widely dispersed across all strata," he added.
There are studies that find new risk factors for ASD almost on a daily basis, said Idan Menashe, assistant professor in the Department of Health at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, the fastest growing research university in Israel.
"There are plenty of studies that find new genetic variants (and new genes)," he said. In addition, various prenatal and perinatal risk factors are associated with a risk of ASD. He cited a study his university conducted last year on the relationship between C-section births and ASD, which found that exposure to general anesthesia may explain the association.
Whatever the cause, health practitioners are seeing the consequences in real time.
"People say rates are higher because of the changes in the diagnostic criteria," said Dr. Roseann Capanna-Hodge, a psychologist in Ridgefield, CT. "And they say it's easier for children to get identified. I say that's not the truth and that I've been doing this for 30 years, and that even 10 years ago, I did not see the level of autism that I do see today."
Sure, we're better at detecting autism, she added, but the detection improvements have largely occurred at the low- to mid- level part of the spectrum. The higher rates of autism are occurring at the more severe end, in her experience.
A Polarizing Theory
Among the more controversial risk factors scientists are exploring is the role environmental toxins may play in the development of autism. Some scientists, doctors and mental health experts suspect that toxins like heavy metals, pesticides, chemicals, or pollution may interrupt the way genes are expressed or the way endocrine systems function, manifesting in symptoms of autism. But others firmly resist such claims, at least until more evidence comes forth. To date, studies have been mixed and many have been more associative than causative.
"Today, scientists are still trying to figure out whether there are other environmental changes that can explain this rise, but studies of this question didn't provide any conclusive answer," said Menashe, who also serves as the scientific director of the National Autism Research Center at BGU.
"It's not everything that makes Charlie. He's just like any other kid."
That inconclusiveness has not dissuaded some doctors from taking the perspective that toxins do play a role. "Autism rates are rising because there is a mismatch between our genes and our environment," said Julia Getzelman, a pediatrician in San Francisco. "The majority of our evolution didn't include the kinds of toxic hits we are experiencing. The planet has changed drastically in just the last 75 years –- it has become more and more polluted with tens of thousands of unregulated chemicals being used by industry that are having effects on our most vulnerable."
She cites BPA, an industrial chemical that has been used since the 1960s to make certain plastics and resins. A large body of research, she says, has shown its impact on human health and the endocrine system. BPA binds to our own hormone receptors, so it may negatively impact the thyroid and brain. A study in 2015 was the first to identify a link between BPA and some children with autism, but the relationship was associative, not causative. Meanwhile, the Food and Drug Administration maintains that BPA is safe at the current levels occurring in food, based on its ongoing review of the available scientific evidence.
Michael Mooney, President of St. Louis-based Delta Genesis, a non-profit organization that treats children struggling with neurodevelopmental delays like autism, suspects a strong role for epigenetics, which refers to changes in how genes are expressed as a result of environmental influences, lifestyle behaviors, age, or disease states.
He believes some children are genetically predisposed to the disorder, and some unknown influence or combination of influences pushes them over the edge, triggering epigenetic changes that result in symptoms of autism.
For Stefania Sterling, it doesn't really matter how or why she had an autistic child. That's only one part of Charlie.
"It's not everything that makes Charlie," she said. "He's just like any other kid. He comes with happy moments. He comes with sad moments. Just like my other three kids."
Friday Five: The Therapeutic Value of Bonding with Fellow Sports Fans
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on new scientific theories and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
This episode includes an interview with Dr. Helen Keyes, Head of the School of Psychology and Sports Science at Anglia Ruskin University.
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Matt Fuchs is the editor-in-chief of Leaps.org and Making Sense of Science. He is also a contributing reporter to the Washington Post and has written for the New York Times, Time Magazine, WIRED and the Washington Post Magazine, among other outlets. Follow him @fuchswriter.
Scientists and dark sky advocates team up to flip the switch on light pollution
As a graduate student in observational astronomy at the University of Arizona during the 1970s, Diane Turnshek remembers the starry skies above the Kitt Peak National Observatory on the Tucson outskirts. Back then, she could observe faint objects like nebulae, galaxies, and star clusters on most nights.
When Turnshek moved to Pittsburgh in 1981, she found it almost impossible to see a clear night sky because the city’s countless lights created a bright dome of light called skyglow. Over the next two decades, Turnshek almost forgot what a dark sky looked like. She witnessed pristine dark skies in their full glory again during a visit to the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah in early 2000s.
“I was shocked at how beautiful the dark skies were in the West. That is when I realized that most parts of the world have lost access to starry skies because of light pollution,” says Turnshek, an astronomer and lecturer at Carnegie Mellon University. In 2015, she became a dark sky advocate.
Light pollution is defined as the excessive or wasteful use of artificial light.
Light-emitting diodes (LEDs) -- which became commercially available in 2002 and rapidly gained popularity in offices, schools, and hospitals when their price dropped six years later — inadvertently fueled the surge in light pollution. As traditional light sources like halogen, fluorescent, mercury, and sodium vapor lamps have been phased out or banned, LEDs became the main source of lighting globally in 2019. Switching to LEDs has been lauded as a win-win decision. Not only are they cheap but they also consume a fraction of electricity compared to their traditional counterparts.
But as cheap LED installations became omnipresent, they increased light pollution. “People have been installing LEDs thinking they are making a positive change for the environment. But LEDs are a lot brighter than traditional light sources,” explains Ashley Wilson, director of conservation at the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA). “Despite being energy-efficient, they are increasing our energy consumption. No one expected this kind of backlash from switching to LEDs.”
Light pollution impacts the circadian rhythms of all living beings — the natural internal process that regulates the sleep–wake cycle.
Currently, more than 80 percent of the world lives under light-polluted skies. In the U.S. and Europe, that figure is above 99 percent.
According to the IDA, $3 billion worth of electricity is lost to skyglow every year in the U.S. alone — thanks to unnecessary and poorly designed outdoor lighting installations. Worse, the resulting light pollution has insidious impacts on humans and wildlife — in more ways than one.
Disrupting the brain’s clock
Light pollution impacts the circadian rhythms of all living beings—the natural internal process that regulates the sleep–wake cycle. Humans and other mammals have neurons in their retina called intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cells (ipRGCs). These cells collect information about the visual world and directly influence the brain’s biological clock in the hypothalamus.
The ipRGCs are particularly sensitive to the blue light that LEDs emit at high levels, resulting in suppression of melatonin, a hormone that helps us sleep. A 2020 JAMA Psychiatry study detailed how teenagers who lived in areas with bright outdoor lighting at night went to bed late and slept less, which made them more prone to mood disorders and anxiety.
“Many people are skeptical when they are told something as ubiquitous as lights could have such profound impacts on public health,” says Gena Glickman, director of the Chronobiology, Light and Sleep Lab at Uniformed Services University. “But when the clock in our brains gets exposed to blue light at nighttime, it could result in a lot of negative consequences like impaired cognitive function and neuro-endocrine disturbances.”
In the last 12 years, several studies indicated that light pollution exposure is associated with obesity and diabetes in humans and animals alike. While researchers are still trying to understand the exact underlying mechanisms, they found that even one night of too much light exposure could negatively affect the metabolic system. Studies have linked light pollution to a higher risk of hormone-sensitive cancers like breast and prostate cancer. A 2017 study found that female nurses exposed to light pollution have a 14 percent higher risk of breast cancer. The World Health Organization (WHO) identified long-term night shiftwork as a probable cause of cancer.
“We ignore our biological need for a natural light and dark cycle. Our patterns of light exposure have consequently become different from what nature intended,” explains Glickman.
Circadian lighting systems, designed to match individuals’ circadian rhythms, might help. The Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute developed LED light systems that mimic natural lighting fluxes, required for better sleep. In the morning the lights shine brightly as does the sun. After sunset, the system dims, once again mimicking nature, which boosts melatonin production. It can even be programmed to increase blue light indoors when clouds block sunlight’s path through windows. Studies have shown that such systems might help reduce sleep fragmentation and cognitive decline. People who spend most of their day indoors can benefit from such circadian mimics.
When Diane Turnshek moved to Pittsburgh, she found it almost impossible to see a clear night sky because the city’s countless lights created a bright dome of light called skyglow.
Leading to better LEDs
Light pollution disrupts the travels of millions of migratory birds that begin their long-distance journeys after sunset but end up entrapped within the sky glow of cities, becoming disoriented. A 2017 study in Nature found that nocturnal pollinators like bees, moths, fireflies and bats visit 62 percent fewer plants in areas with artificial lights compared to dark areas.
“On an evolutionary timescale, LEDs have triggered huge changes in the Earth’s environment within a relative blink of an eye,” says Wilson, the director of IDA. “Plants and animals cannot adapt so fast. They have to fight to survive with their existing traits and abilities.”
But not all types of LEDs are inherently bad -- it all comes down to how much blue light they emit. During the day, the sun emits blue light waves. By sunset, it’s replaced by red and orange light waves that stimulate melatonin production. LED’s artificial blue light, when shining at night, disrupts that. For some unknown reason, there are more bluer color LEDs made and sold.
“Communities install blue color temperature LEDs rather than redder color temperature LEDs because more of the blue ones are made; they are the status quo on the market,” says Michelle Wooten, an assistant professor of astronomy at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Most artificial outdoor light produced is wasted as human eyes do not use them to navigate their surroundings.
While astronomers and the IDA have been educating LED manufacturers about these nuances, policymakers struggle to keep up with the growing industry. But there are things they can do—such as requiring LEDs to include dimmers. “Most LED installations can be dimmed down. We need to make the dimmable drivers a mandatory requirement while selling LED lighting,” says Nancy Clanton, a lighting engineer, designer, and dark sky advocate.
Some lighting companies have been developing more sophisticated LED lights that help support melatonin production. Lighting engineers at Crossroads LLC and Nichia Corporation have been working on creating LEDs that produce more light in the red range. “We live in a wonderful age of technology that has given us these new LED designs which cut out blue wavelengths entirely for dark-sky friendly lighting purposes,” says Wooten.
Dimming the lights to see better
The IDA and advocates like Turnshek propose that communities turn off unnecessary outdoor lights. According to the Department of Energy, 99 percent of artificial outdoor light produced is wasted as human eyes do not use them to navigate their surroundings.
In recent years, major cities like Chicago, Austin, and Philadelphia adopted the “Lights Out” initiative encouraging communities to turn off unnecessary lights during birds’ peak migration seasons for 10 days at a time. “This poses an important question: if people can live without some lights for 10 days, why can’t they keep them turned off all year round,” says Wilson.
Most communities globally believe that keeping bright outdoor lights on all night increases security and prevents crime. But in her studies of street lights’ brightness levels in different parts of the US — from Alaska to California to Washington — Clanton found that people felt safe and could see clearly even at low or dim lighting levels.
Clanton and colleagues installed LEDs in a Seattle suburb that provided only 25 percent of lighting levels compared to what they used previously. The residents reported far better visibility because the new LEDs did not produce glare. “Visual contrast matters a lot more than lighting levels,” Clanton says. Additionally, motion sensor LEDs for outdoor lighting can go a long way in reducing light pollution.
Flipping a switch to preserve starry nights
Clanton has helped draft laws to reduce light pollution in at least 17 U.S. states. However, poor awareness of light pollution led to inadequate enforcement of these laws. Also, getting thousands of counties and municipalities within any state to comply with these regulations is a Herculean task, Turnshek points out.
Fountain Hills, a small town near Phoenix, Arizona, has rid itself of light pollution since 2018, thanks to the community's efforts to preserve dark skies.
Until LEDs became mainstream, Fountain Hills enjoyed starry skies despite its proximity to Phoenix. A mountain surrounding the town blocks most of the skyglow from the city.
“Light pollution became an issue in Fountain Hills over the years because we were not taking new LED technologies into account. Our town’s lighting code was antiquated and out-of-date,” says Vicky Derksen, a resident who is also a part of the Fountain Hills Dark Sky Association founded in 2017. “To preserve dark skies, we had to work with the entire town to update the local lighting code and convince residents to follow responsible outdoor lighting practices.”
Derksen and her team first tackled light pollution in the town center which has a faux fountain in the middle of a lake. “The iconic centerpiece, from which Fountain Hills got its name, had the wrong types of lighting fixtures, which created a lot of glare,” adds Derksen. They then replaced several other municipal lighting fixtures with dark-sky-friendly LEDs.
The results were awe-inspiring. After a long time, residents could see the Milky Way with crystal clear clarity. Star-gazing activities made a strong comeback across the town. But keeping light pollution low requires constant work.
Derksen and other residents regularly measure artificial light levels in
Fountain Hills. Currently, the only major source of light pollution is from extremely bright, illuminated signs which local businesses had installed in different parts of the town. While Derksen says it is an uphill battle to educate local businesses about light pollution, Fountain Hills residents are determined to protect their dark skies.
“When a river gets polluted, it can take several years before clean-up efforts see any tangible results,” says Derksen. “But the effects are immediate when you work toward reducing light pollution. All it requires is flipping a switch.”