New study shows sharp rise in diagnosed autism cases, some Huntsville experts say that’s a good thing

Doctors say they have gotten better at diagnosing autism.
Published: Apr. 4, 2023 at 10:07 AM CDT
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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WAFF) - A new study is in the spotlight during Autism Awareness Month as it shows a significant rise in autism diagnoses in children. Mental health leaders in Huntsville say this is a good thing.

In a study published in the Pediatrics medical journal, Rutgers University researchers found that autism rates tripled in children in the New York and New Jersey metro area from 2000 to 2016.

NBC reported the 2021 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report showed a similar trend. The study states a few possible reasons for this phenomenon, but the most compelling case is that doctors and experts simply know more about autism now.

Doctors advanced diagnostic capabilities while the public gained a greater understanding of autism spectrum disorder.

Huntsville-based psychologist, Dr. Patrick Quirk, said he’s diagnosed more people with autism recently compared to when he first started practicing psychology. He says he doesn’t believe there are more people with autism compared to 2000, but he’s become better at diagnosing it. Plus, there is less stigma so his patients are more open to the diagnosis.

“It’s gone from being a stigma to being, I think it’s the newest sort of prejudice we’re working through in America,” Dr. Quirk said. “I think it’s so interesting. It’s not just that there is a struggle. There’s a struggle with a super sensitive nervous system and the difficulty organizing but in many folks who are bright you see a capacity for particular brilliance around certain areas and so I think it’s becoming more and more appreciated.”

He says many people come into his office suffering from depression and anxiety symptoms but they exhibit signs of autism. He says that can be a range of symptoms like impaired social skills, repetitive behaviors and hypersensitivity.

He says finding a diagnosis can help people find the help that they need.

Jessica Cotton is a mom to two children with autism. She says they experience their diagnoses in very different ways. One of her sons began to isolate himself so she stepped in. She co-founded a new group for neurodivergent kids and others can get to know each other. It’s lovingly called the ‘Weird Kids Meet Up’ and based out of the Shenanigans Comedy Theatre.

Doctors say they have gotten better at diagnosing autism.

Cotton is especially qualified to lead this group as a long-time special education teacher.

She says her classroom reflects the growth of autism diagnoses. She says she’s seen more kids in her special ed. classrooms.

“You’re also seeing a greater percentage of people advocating for what they need which is amazing,” Cotton said. “We’ve always had kids in the classroom who had autism. We’ve always had kids in our families and our communities they just were not always handled the same way.”

She says a diagnosis can help pave the way for more accommodations and acceptance for neurodivergent people.

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