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Jim Tait 02/01-02/28/17

home : opinions : opinions
January 19, 2018

1/12/2018 7:30:00 AM
Autism numbers spike: The latest call to action

The new numbers on autism prevalence are alarming - according to a national survey of more than 30,000 families, 1 in 36 U.S. children have been diagnosed with autism - and they are yet another urgent call for our elected leaders to take action.

Action they must take on two separate fronts.

First, our nation needs to continue its efforts to find the cause or causes of autism, to help us better develop successful treatments and preventive measures. While a growing body of evidence points to environmental triggers, adequate resources must be provided to non-ideological and truly independent scientists so they can pursue their research wherever it takes them.

Second, the nation must come to terms with the educational, social, and medical needs of those who already have autism, and with the needs of their families. Frankly, the resources provided to special-needs student populations these days is woefully inadequate for what is already a massive population.

As the latest NCHS survey shows, the numbers continue to tick upward. Lost productivity, lost lives, lost national wealth - each and every day more and more people are being lost to this tragic epidemic, and ultimately all of us are going to pay the price.

The thing is, when it comes to education, we pretty much know what works and what does not. We know what is effective and what is not. True, the science is always evolving, and there are always new revelations, but the world has made great strides in educating and socializing children with autism.

What is lagging is the resources to do what needs to be done effectively. If ever there was a need for government spending, this is it.

A few words about the latest government survey are in order.

Most important, while the number of children aged 3-17 who have received a diagnosis of autism according to their parents rose from 2.24 percent in 2014 to 2.76 percent in 2016, the government says that growth is not statistically significant.

And that has led the notoriously lazy, sloppy, and dishonest mainstream media to report that what the numbers really show is a leveling off of the autism rate, a steadying of the numbers.

Here's how UPI put it in its headline about the survey: "NIH: Autism rates in U.S. appear to be stabilizing."

Well, nothing could be further from the truth. That's not what the NIH said, and the mainstream media is once again wrong.

What the government said was that the increase is not statistically significant. That's academic terminology, and it has nothing to do with whether the increase was large or significant in real-world terms. Indeed, when those percentages are translated, that's an increase from 1-in-45 children to 1-in-36 and no one is going to argue that's not a significant increase.

What it does mean is the increase falls within a range that makes it more likely the outcome was the result of chance. It doesn't tell us anything about the importance of the outcome.

In this instance, all that labeling the increase as statistically insignificant means is that, while the increase is large, it might be due to chance. Of course, it could also be real.

It doesn't tell us anything about the size of the increase - that certainly wasn't stable - and it doesn't mean a different sample will produce a different result.

A great point about this was made about a decade ago by Andrew Gelman, a professor in the Department of Statistics and Department of Political Science at Columbia University, and Hal Stern, a professor in the Department of Statistics at the University of California, Irvine, in their wonderfully titled article "The Difference Between 'Significant' and 'Not Significant' is not itself Statistically Significant."

In their discussion, Gelman and Stern touch on the growing awareness that "statistical significance is not the same as practical importance," and "that dichotomization into significant and nonsignificant results encourages the dismissal of observed differences in favor of the usually less interesting null hypothesis of no difference, and that any particular threshold for declaring significance is arbitrary."

Indeed, the authors wrote, many of the pitfalls of relying on declarations of statistical significance are well known.

"For example, by now practically all introductory texts point out that statistical significance does not equal practical importance," they wrote. "If the estimated effect of a drug is to decrease blood pressure by 0.10 with a standard error of 0.03, this would be statistically significant but probably not important in practice. Conversely, an estimated effect of 10 with a standard error of 10 would not be statistically significant, but it has the possibility of being important in practice."

And so equally could the rise in autism rates by 23 percent over three years be important. Especially in public health matters, such differences cannot be dismissed or trivialized, but, as the authors observe, such focus on statistical significance "encourages practitioners to ignore potentially important observed differences."

Such as the media has done with very potentially important observed difference in the autism rate of 2014 and that of 2016. So with, one, the over-focus on statistical significance in the first place, and, two, the media's mistranslation of statistical insignificance into "stabilizing numbers," the important news in the survey was not only completely buried, it was falsified to boot.

There's also the difference between the 1-in-36 number in the parents' survey and the 1-in-68 official CDC estimate, in which the latter did show a stabilized prevalence rate in its 2014 and 2016 reports.

As we report today, there are limitations in both data constructions, but, that said, there are some very good reasons to believe that the parental survey is the more accurate one.

For one thing, as Autism Speaks points out, the official CDC numbers are based on an analysis of medical and school records of children and can miss children who have not received autism-related medical or special education services.

The CDC also acknowledges that the parents' survey sample is more broadly based than the official sample, which is carried out at 11 monitoring sites selected competitively and are not necessarily representative of the national population or even of the population in the state where the site is located.

Not only that, but, the CDC admits, its inability to review education records at some sites might have led to an underestimate of ASD prevalence at those sites. All that is nicely tucked away in the fine print.

To be sure, parents may overreport or mislabel some ASD diagnoses, especially with all the media attention autism receives, but, on balance, the reported reluctance of parents to label their child as having autism because of the stigma attached to the disorders and the built-in sampling flaws of the CDC estimate likely make the parents' survey a more accurate barometer.

At the end of the day, though, while the latest news points to an increasing crisis, any of these numbers should be a sufficient wake-up call for our elected leaders. No matter which number you embrace, all of them - whether it is 1 in 36, or 1 in 45, or 1 in 68 - point to a crisis that is epidemic in proportion.

Consider that when a terrified and almost panicked nation was in the clutches of the polio epidemic, its numbers were nowhere near the autism numbers of today. In 1952, at the height of the polio epidemic, there were a total number of 312,571 cases of polio documented among the birth to 17 population, out of 50.5 million children of that age.

Thus only about six-tenths of one percent of the youth population had polio compared to 2.76 percent today who have autism. If that comparison doesn't wake our elected officials up, nothing will.

Even a stabilized epidemic would be an ongoing tragedy, and it is especially so for those already in this world and living with these disorders. It is a moral imperative not only to try and truly stabilize this growing crisis - starting by paying attention to what parents across the country are telling us - but to work and invest every possible resource to make the lives of those millions with autism as happy, as productive, and as decent as we can.

That is the mission before us, and, as the new autism numbers press upon us, the time is now.

Reader Comments

Posted: Saturday, January 13, 2018
Article comment by: Cynthia Parker

I don't think it is true that we know what is required to educate the autistic. Every effort is made to deny the obvious: that it is brain damage, and it is caused by the excessive inflammatory reaction many people mount to vaccines, vaccine encephalitis. It does stroke-like damage to the language center of the brain, and the only way to counteract it is to teach English from the beginning, as a foreign language. I've been using Cambridge University Connect and Interchange English Language Learner books, and my autistic daughter has made immense strides, from close to no language to a lot of language (though still nowhere near normal) from four years of intensive study of the structures and vocabulary of English. She had had language therapy at school from kindergarten on, but it was only "chat" therapy, friendly questions which assume the student is in possession of all the structures of English, having been exposed to them all his life. The methods of "chat" therapy were designed in the '60s, decades before the vaccine and autism epidemics started around 1990, and designed for completely different problems. And so the autistic do NOT learn language. Every kindergarten should have a program using Cambridge's Super Safari program for teaching English to preschoolers: Cambridge designed it for foreign children, but it works wonderfully for the autistic as well. Because when the inborn grammatical structures (Chomsky) have been damaged or destroyed, then it takes a lot of work to reconstruct them so they can be used to interpret the world and store knowledge and memories of it. And no one is doing this work. Our school speech therapist said that since it's not accepted by the (pharma-controlled) academy, any speech therapist who worked on structures would get into a lot of trouble.

For academics it also takes one-on-one instruction (which the schools refuse to do): I've been drilling my daughter on memorizing answers to questions on question sheets taken from What Your --- Needs to Know. We've been working for many years, but she just finished the Great Depresson, near the end of the Seventh Grade book. She would never have learned a single thing about the Russian Revolution, the technological advances of the early twentieth century (telephones, electric lighting, silent movies and talkies, radio, airplanes), or dozens of other topics if we had not done this. At school they say she has to use the same texts as everyone else, that even mentally retarded students have to use the same texts, in the same classroom, theoretically adapted to their level, but in reality they've never adapted a single thing. And she learned nothing at school. Zero.

There are no autism homes here. Autists are expected to get a job when they finish high school (although over 90% of autists are unemployed), live on their own, and take care of themselves. My daughter will get maximum $600 Social Security, $125 in food stamps, Medicaid (which pays NOTHING for dental care), and a taxi quota. When she's never used the phone for anything, would be unable to talk to a taxi driver. She would have no idea how to budget to make $125 last all month, get, store, and prepare her groceries. (Although there is a great food plan at TACA on the gluten-free, casein-free diet on food stamps. Because yes, close to 100% of autists have to eat gluten, casein, even grain-free, because nearly all of them have the vaccine-induced bowel disease that one in ten of our children have now anyway (they get it from autoimmune vaccine reactions as well, even if they don't react with autism)).

There is a publicly-funded handicapped apartment building here where she could have a room, and they'd take 75% of her SS money to pay the rent on it. No supervision. When she is like a six-year old child. Yes, we're all in for a bumpy ride, and those still oblivious of the problem are about to have a rude awakening, which is going to cost everyone in the US mega bucks like they could never have dreamed.

Our society has NO idea what's about to hit it with millions of these kids starting to age out of public school. Theoretically, these kids have a right to continue in school until they're 21, but since the schools have NO IDEA what to do for them, it's not happening. Our autism advocate said only one family has been able to force the school to keep their autistic son on, and our school case manager said no, it's the law, but the school is simply not going to do it. (To be fair, the schools are totally overwhelmed with the astronomical numbers of the vaccine jetsam about to capsize them. And few people know about it because of the lockhold the pharma companies have on the media, the schools, and the legislators.)

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