Dylan Dyke, a 12-year-old boy with autism, spends time with his ducks, Nibbles, left, and Bill, outside his home in Michigan on Aug. 2, 2018. (Cory Morse/The Grand Rapids Press via AP)

Dylan Dyke, a 12-year-old boy with autism, spends time with his ducks, Nibbles, left, and Bill, outside his home in Michigan on Aug. 2, 2018. (Cory Morse/The Grand Rapids Press via AP)

New study suggests autism overdiagnosed: Canadian expert

Laurent Mottron: ‘Autistic people we test now are less and less different than typical people’

Autism has become so overdiagnosed that within five to 10 years there could be almost no difference between groups of people who have been diagnosed with the condition and those who haven’t, a Montreal researcher warns following the publication of a new study.

A new meta-analysis published Wednesday in JAMA Psychiatry that analyzed 11 previous major studies carried out since 1966 found that individuals diagnosed with autism have become progressively less different from the general population.

Laurent Mottron, a research psychiatrist at the mental health unit of the Riviere-des-Prairies Hospital and one of the study’s authors, said the gap could soon narrow to nothing.

“Autistic people we test now are less and less different than typical people — really less and less, to the point where if the trend continues, we won’t be able to find the least difference within five or 10 years,” he said in an interview.

Mottron says the problem is that the criteria have lowered to the point where a diagnosis could become nearly meaningless.

Mottron and four other researchers conducted a meta-analysis of previous studies that compared people who have been diagnosed with autism with those who haven’t. The analysis, which included data from 27,723 individuals, includes practically “the whole of planetary research on the autistic brain,” he said.

The analysis found that the differences between the groups have decreased over time in five of the seven main constructs that define autism, including emotion recognition, theory of mind, planning and brain size.

READ MORE: B.C. parents hope service dog helps stop autistic child’s self-harming

In contrast, the group found no such tendency when it comes to the prevalence of schizophrenia, which has remained stable for the past two decades.

Globally, the number of people diagnosed with autism has risen dramatically in recent years, going in the United States from less than 0.5 per cent of the population in 1966 to more than two per cent. In Quebec, the number is approaching two per cent.

The study’s authors say their findings may be due to several factors, including a true increase in the condition, greater public awareness, the fact that a diagnosis leads to greater support, a lowered threshold for diagnosis, the use of “checklist diagnoses” and a greater tendency to diagnose individuals with a normal IQ.

They note that understanding of autism has also evolved ”from a narrowly defined clinical picture to a spectrum of conditions of uncertain similarity.” They warn that this blurring of the line could potentially make it more difficult to study the disorder.

Mottron, for his part, says the research points to a rampant problem of overdiagnosis that he blames on schools, doctors and parents alike. He goes so far as to suggest that a diagnosis can work in a school or parent’s best interest by making them eligible for extra help and funding that they may otherwise not receive.

“Right now, a diagnosis of autism is what allows one to get services in schools,” he said. “When you have an autism diagnosis, you have much greater chances of getting all kinds of extra things compared to another condition, which is total nonsense, because the need for services is independent from a diagnosis.”

He said the criteria for a diagnosis have become “trivial,” including a child’s lack of friends or a dislike of haircuts or tags on clothing.

Mottron acknowledged that the situation is complicated because mild forms of autism do exist. However, he noted that having certain autistic traits isn’t the same as having autism and said it’s “fundamental” for medical professionals to move beyond a simple checklist of symptoms before issuing a diagnosis.

He said the potential for misdiagnosis is problematic in many ways, including the risk of children receiving the wrong treatment.

RELATED: Amazon removes books that promoted autism ‘cure’

“The people who are diagnosed as autistic when they aren’t often have problems, but they’re not the same ones,” he said.

He said the cost of specialized services for autism are high and too many diagnosed children can spread resources too thin, meaning those who need them most don’t get enough.

Jean-Benoit Legault, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

Just Posted

Alberta is now below 3,000 active cases of COVID-19, as the province reported 2,639 Wednesday. (NIAID-RML via AP)
Red Deer below 100 active COVID-19 cases for first time since March

69.7 per cent of Albertans 12 and over have at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine

Premier Jason Kenney says the provincial government is doing everything it can to encourage Albertans to get vaccinated. (Photo by Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)
Travel prizes added to Alberta’s vaccine lottery

More than 40 travel rewards available for those who are fully vaccinated

(Advocate file photo)
Red Deer down to 102 active COVID-19 cases

Central zone has 332 cases with 26 in hospital and five in ICU

Storm clouds gathered in Mulhurst, Alta., just before noon June 15, 2021. Photo/ Dan Moster.
Areas of County of Wetaskiwin remain under severe thunderstorm watch

Environment Canada has issued a severe thunderstorm watch for areas of the County.

Maskwacis Pride crosswalk (Left to right): Montana First Nation Councillor Reggie Rabbit, Samson Cree Nation Councillor Louise Omeasoo, Samson Cree Nation Councillor Katherine Swampy, Samson Cree Nation Councillor Shannon Buffalo, Samson Cree Nation Chief Vern Saddleback.
Pride in Maskwacis

The 4th inaugural Maskwacis Pride crosswalk painting took place on Saturday June 12th, 2021

People watch a car burn during a riot following game 7 of the NHL Stanley Cup final in downtown Vancouver, B.C., in this June 15, 2011 photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Geoff Howe
10 years ago: Where were you during the 2011 Vancouver Stanley Cup Riots?

Smashed-in storefronts, looting, garbage can fires and overturned cars some of the damage remembered today

A screenshot of the First Peoples Cultural Councils First Peoples’ Map. (First Peoples Cultural Council)
Online resource blends B.C.-Alberta’s Indigenous languages, art and culture

Advisor says initiative supports the urgent need to preserve Indigenous languages

A plane is silhouetted as it takes off from Vancouver International Airport in Richmond, B.C., May 13, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Report calls for airlines to refund passengers for flights halted due to COVID-19

Conclusion: federal help should be on the condition airlines immediately refund Canadian travellers

Green party Leader Annamie Paul speaks during a news conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, June 15, 2021. Paul has survived another day of party strife after a planned ouster shifted course, leaving her with a tenuous grip on power ahead of a likely federal election this year. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
Green Leader Annamie Paul blasts ‘racist,’ ‘sexist’ party execs who sought ouster

Fallout has continued, with two of the federal council’s members resigning

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and U.S President Joe Biden shake hands during their meeting at the ‘Villa la Grange’ in Geneva, Switzerland in Geneva, Switzerland, Wednesday, June 16, 2021. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, Pool)
Biden says meeting with Putin not a ‘kumbaya moment’

But U.S. president asserted Russian leader is interested in improved relations, averting a Cold War

A nurse prepares a shot of the COVID-19 vaccine at the Yukon Convention Centre in Whitehorse on Wednesday, March 3, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mike Thomas
Vancouver couple pleads guilty to breaking Yukon COVID rules, travelling for vaccine

Chief Judge Michael Cozens agreed with a joint sentencing submission,

People line up to get their COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination centre, Thursday, June 10, 2021 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Vaccines, low COVID case counts increase Father’s Day hope, but risk is still there

Expert says people will have to do their own risk calculus before popping in on Papa

COVID-related trash is washing up on shorelines across the world, including Coldstream’s Kal Beach, as pictured in this May 2021 photograph. (Jennifer Smith - Black Press)
Shoreline cleanup finds COVID-related trash increased during height of the pandemic

Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup reports litter from single-use food packaging nearly doubled

Most Read