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Can Awareness Trump Fear and Greed? Part 1: The Autism Epidemic

April is Autism Awareness month, so what better time than now to talk about the subject of awareness in general and the ever increasing incidence of autism in particular?

I’ve been planning to write this article for several years. Ten years ago, I began collecting data about the incidence of autism and projecting its growth, which I estimated to be approximately 10% a year. I’m sad to report that the CDC statistics have borne this rate out, though it may actually be even worse. I distinctly remember when the rate of autism was 1 in 150 children, and it wasn’t that long ago — at about the time my book Impossible Cure came out in 2003. Now the media commonly cites a 1 in 68 statistic, though a more recent, less publicized 2015 CDC report cites a new rate of 1 in 45 children. We have broken the threshold of 2% of children with autism.

Where is this all taking us? At what point will the media stop saying that the increase in autism is nothing to be alarmed about — that it is illusory and simply due to an increased awareness of the condition and improved diagnosis? At what point will the media stop implying that autism is a genetic disease that has nothing to do with environmental causes? (Although genetics may make some people more susceptible to these causes, as environmental factors increase in intensity, more and more people are clearly falling prey to them.) Consider this. What will our society be like when 1 in 10 children (10%) are autistic? 1 in 5 children? Half of all children? Don’t forget: autistic children grow up and become autistic adults who will be dependent on society for help. We are only now beginning to experience the consequences of an increased adult autistic population, as the “statistics” of the 1990s enter their 20s.

These are all interesting questions, and my guess is, we will all be finding out the answers in our lifetimes.

But this article isn’t just about autism. The issues, questions, and potential solutions to the autism epidemic also pertain to other alarming trends humanity is facing. Climate change is the most obvious example. The growing corruption of our food supply and other types of environmental damage wreaked by GMOs, pesticides, and monoculture practices is another. We humans are certainly a highly adaptable species that is able to survive in the face of environmental challenges that are obvious to us. But we seem to be quite bad at noticing and responding to environmental problems that develop more slowly or that don’t affect us directly. Like the proverbial frog not noticing that the pot is coming to a slow boil — or even if it does notice, it is too fearful, numbed out, or self-absorbed to do anything about it — we humans tend to ignore evidence until it’s too late to escape severe consequences.

This article is the first in a series of two or three articles that will talk about this human trait and the kinds of things that might influence the rate at which we take appropriate action. One question I’d like to explore is whether cultivating a particular form of awareness could be a remedy. Another important factor may be whether we can find attractive alternatives that provide a solution.

Whatever the problem may be, however, perhaps our biggest obstacles to taking early action are the all-too-human forces of fear and greed. Indeed, one thing we can be sure of: we would take appropriate action if it could also be motivated by fear and greed! Unfortunately, fear and greed often lead to inappropriate action instead. Wouldn’t it be better if an enhanced form of awareness and access to alternatives could be used to motivate us?

So let’s begin by taking a deeper look at the autism epidemic.