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4/4/17: Is Autism Less Prevalent In Developing Countries?

Hi everyone. I am going to start writing blog posts on Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

Today is especially important as it is Autism Awareness Day. For my first post, I am discussing the cause of my charity: to help autistic kids in developing countries. I am discussing research that indicates that developing countries have lower rates of autism than the US. While this may appear to be a positive statistic, in reality it just means that there are many undiagnosed and untreated kids in these developing countries.

Recent data suggests that Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is much more prevalent in the US compared to developing countries. In the US, 1 out of 45 children ages 3 - 17 are diagnosed with ASD. In developing countries like China, on the other hand, it is estimated that only 11 out of 100,000 (or 1 out of 9000) children ages 2 - 6 are diagnosed with ASD. There are multiple theories as to why these distinctions exist.

The most accepted theory is not that there is a substantive difference in rates, but instead that there is a failure to diagnose ASD in developing countries. This is mainly due to lack of autism awareness in these countries. In the US, ASD is a commonly discussed and studied disease, as “doctors are more familiar with diagnosing autism, health services are increasingly being offered for children with ASD, and communities are often more aware of the disorder”. However, in South Korea, for example, there is only one psychiatrist per 100,000 people, making it extremely difficult for someone suffering from a mental health disorder to get diagnosed or treated. This is partly due to the common stigma of mental health disorders in these cultures. As a result, families intentionally avoid diagnosis of ASD, so their children can still attend school, and eventually be married. To add, difficulty speaking and lack of eye contact can sometimes be mistaken as part of some cultures; in South Korea it is disrespectful for a child to make eye contact with an adult, and in India, there is a belief that male children speak later. Whatever the reason, we have to keep in mind that these affected children are being left untreated, and unaccepted in their society.

Another theory for the different ASD rates is that human immune systems are better suited to the environments of developing countries. According to the “Biome Depletion Theory,” human immune systems evolved alongside parasites and microbes. The absence of these parasites and microbes in urban society could have caused or immune responses to overreact. As a result, children in developed countries could be more susceptible to diseases, such as ASD. In developing countries, such as Cambodia, with large amounts of these parasites and infections, the ASD rate is extremely low.

Overall, we can only find the true cause for these varying rates of ASD with further research on the subject. In the meanwhile, we need to focus on making all people aware of this disease, and helping autistic children get diagnosed and treated. We need to find ways to specifically help people in each developing country; we need to tailor how we educate others, to be culturally sensitive, and to consider the needs of these families. Due to limited resources in these countries, we need to be realistic and find ways to aid and educate families on how to care for autistic children rather than focus only on providing them with professional help. We should ensure that correct knowledge travels by word of mouth, from one parent to the next; the number one way interviewed Iranian parents learned of autism was through other parents. Next, we need to make sure these families have access to resources; this can be done by providing educational books in their local language, and training their local doctors. With these two steps, we can help children get diagnosed, help families become better prepared for caring for their child, and create a more accepting atmosphere for an autistic child.

This article is based on research by Virginia Hughes, Corinne Maguire, Sayyed Ali Samadi and Roy McConkey, and New Government Survey by Autism Speaks.