Idea that 5% of all Northern Ireland's children are autistic is 'a fantasy' claims international expert
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Professor Laurent Mottron was speaking to the News Letter following a claim that the rate of autism in Northern Ireland is double the rate in the rest of the UK.
Back in 2019 Prof Mottron had authored a report warning about a tsunami of over-diagnosis, saying that soon "the definition of autism may get too vague to be meaningful, trivializing the condition".
“If this trend holds, the objective difference between people with autism and the general population will disappear in less than 10 years," he had said then – and has now indicated that this “fuzziness” is what’s helping swell the numbers in Northern Ireland.
Meanwhile Jill Escher, the president of the National Council on Severe Autism, takes a different view.
She says that evidence indicates the "skyrocketing" rate of autism in Northern Ireland is real, adding: "It boggles my mind that it is not the subject of the highest possible alarm and inquiry."
"One in 20 children in Northern Ireland of school age has a diagnosis of autism," he told MPs.
"[It is] one in 57 in the rest of the UK. The need in Northern Ireland is significantly different."
To put that in perspective, that would mean 5% of Northern Irish children are diagnosed with autism, compared with 1.8% in the rest of the UK.
Prof Mottron, a psychiatrist based at Montreal University, told the News Letter "numbers such as 5% are pure fantasy... these numbers correspond to the part of the general population which has less overt socialisation, which has minimally to do with prototypical autism".
There is a "current fuzziness of autism diagnosis and over-inclusivity," he said, leading to "a situation of perfect confusion between autistic traits and prototypical autism" (that is, mixing up people who exhibit some tendencies of autistic people with people who actually have the full-blown condition).
"The scientific 'quasi consensus' would be around 1% everywhere on the planet,” he added.
Meanwhile Ms Escher of the National Council on Severe Autism (based in the USA) believes there is some unconfirmed trigger which is causing a genuine spiral in autism rates.
Asked why there has been an explosion in diagnoses, she said: "The conventional answer to your question is that it’s 'better awareness' and 'broader diagnostics'.
"But of course that is all speculation and contrary to mountains of evidence that, by any objective measure, autism rates are skyrocketing both in England and N Ireland.
"Now, I’m in California, not NI, so have little insight into what may be causing the disparate numbers you mention.
"But generally we see different (but always climbing!) rates depending on the autism definition/context used…
"I have been reading regular news reports about the growing numbers in NI and it boggles my mind that it is not the subject of the highest possible alarm and inquiry (but I feel the same about the US).”