Monday, May 9, 2011

Dramatic rates of autism in South Korea? (UPDATED)

The New York Times is reporting on a study conducted in the Seoul suburb of Ilsan that yielded rates of autism double what they are in the industrialized world:
An ambitious six-year effort to gauge the rate of childhood autism in a middle-class South Korean city has yielded a figure that stunned experts and is likely to influence the way the disorder’s prevalence is measured around the world, scientists reported on Monday.

The figure, 2.6 percent of all children aged 7 to 12 in the Ilsan district of the city of Goyang, is more than twice the rate usually reported in the developed world. Even that rate, about 1 percent, has been climbing rapidly in recent years — from 0.6 percent in the United States in 2007, for example.

But experts said the findings did not mean that the actual numbers of children with autism were rising, simply that the study was more comprehensive than previous ones.

“This is a very impressive study,” said Lisa Croen, director of the autism research program at Kaiser-Permanente Northern California, who was not connected with the new report. “They did a careful job and in a part of the world where autism has not been well documented in the past.”
As with so many other social or medical ills, there is always a risk that a changing definition or closer scrutiny can alter the statistics one is putting together, and that may be at work here.

At the same time, however, among older fathers and older mothers there is an increased risk one's child will develop autism (my parents sent me a newspaper clipping of that article shortly after I started my PhD in Hawaii, a warning that I might very well be forty-something when I eventually have kids). The connection I'm making is that the average age of giving birth has gone up significantly in Korea as more South Koreans go to college and more SoKo women seek careers before getting married. I wonder if that might be a part of the increase.

For most South Koreans, I think the movie Marathon is the face of autism (called cha•p'yet•chŭng, 자폐증). Such depictions may make more SoKos aware of the issue, and possibly somewhat more sympathetic, but not necessarily less alarmed by the prospect of their child having that condition. There is still great stigma attached to any problem perceived to be mentally based, but if more and more people are diagnosed with this, we might reach a critical mass where it is seen as a routine condition that simply needs to be managed and dealt with rather than frightened or repulsed by.

NBC News in the United States has used the report as an anchor for a wider report on autism:

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