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Autism on the Rise

The rate of autism is rising. The number of reported cases has increased 10-fold in the last few decades, from 1 in 2,500 in the 1970s to 1 in 250 in the 1990s. Researchers are looking everywhere for the reason--from drinking water to the womb--with no clear-cut answer to date. In part, the increased incidence can be attributed to a broader definition of autism, which now includes milder forms of the disorder,1 as well as to better diagnostics and greater public awareness.2 But scientists don't

Laura Defrancesco
The rate of autism is rising. The number of reported cases has increased 10-fold in the last few decades, from 1 in 2,500 in the 1970s to 1 in 250 in the 1990s. Researchers are looking everywhere for the reason--from drinking water to the womb--with no clear-cut answer to date. In part, the increased incidence can be attributed to a broader definition of autism, which now includes milder forms of the disorder,1 as well as to better diagnostics and greater public awareness.2 But scientists don't know if these reasons explain the entire increase.

At a late-April conference entitled "Autism: Deciphering the Puzzle," developmental biologists, geneticists, and neurobiologists gathered to talk about this complex disease. While scientists attending the conference at the California Institute of Technology could not explain the huge jump in incidence, they did voice some hope: there is progress in understanding the condition's biological basis, along...

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