The Fairytale of a Static Rate of Autism Part 5 – The Prevalence Jackpot Versus The Prevalence Hookup, Futilely Struggling To Making Sense Out of Static, And How Journey Autism Flavors Our Path Of Moving Forward
Posted April 17, 2013on:
Hello friends –
There used to be a poker room about twenty miles from my home; it sat above a run down greyhound racing track and smelled like an old shoe on the best day. But they had poker. They hosted an accumulating jackpot hand, usually worth a couple of thousand dollars, sometimes quite a lot more, which you could win if you got a royal flush in the current suit; i.e., if the suit was hearts, and you wound up with 10-J-Q-K-A hearts, you’d win the Jackpot. This could lead to some unusual cost/reward analysis scenarios.
Let’s say you sit down to play and buy in for a hundred dollars. Then, three hands later, you look at your two hole cards and you have 10-J hearts. Not really a great hand, but if the board winds up showing Q-K-A hearts somewhere in the next five cards, you win fifteen thousand dollars (or whatever the Jackpot had accumulated to). Almost everyone folds, but before you get a chance to see the next three cards for the two measly dollars you put up as a blind, an aggressive, serial over-better to your right raises to fifteen dollars. You are in a tough spot, you know the guy bets like crazy anytime he thinks he can steal a pot, but you still are losing to anyone with a queen. If you had 10-J spades, or clubs, or mixed, or (nearly) whatever else, this is easy; you dump your shitty cards. But with your two royal heart cards, you *could* win the jackpot; your odds still totally suck, even if you were getting paid off a thousand to one you still didn’t have the ‘right’ odds to make the call, but if you inhabit a place where losing fifteen dollars won’t kill you, but winning fifteen thousand would definitely be a game changer, the magnitude of the potential winnings must be part of your decision making process.
I called the raise a few times, but never hit the jackpot. Or even came close.
I keep coming back to the idea of incorporating the scale of potential outcomes when I think about the non event of the hilarious prevalence numbers that came out a while, one in fifty with ‘autism’. Nobody outside of Journey Autism fucking cared and the responses were depressingly predictable; the media and the Internet skeptics went ‘full awareness’, and found nothing of any alarm in these numbers, the Internet vaccine crazies went ‘full autism’, and assumed the numbers were solely comprised of individuals who would need 24×7 assistance for forever. It was all a big joke. Haha.
I don’t know how large the real increase in autism is (the older parental age data tells us unambiguously that some of the increase is non-imaginary), but I do know that as our best efforts at figuring this thing out has left us skipping from one in two hundred and fifty, to one in a fifty in eight short years. To my eye, this means a real increase of fifty percent (or more!) could easily be hiding in the static and we’d never know. Most everyone doesn’t seem to care, that is the way of the Prevalence Hookup, quickly embracing whatever prevalence numbers come out, coupling until a set of newer, bigger, even more ‘greater awareness’ numbers come along.
But my thoughts continue to be formed by concept of a sort of missed jackpot opportunity when I see a sense of complacency about our ever growing autism population; it isn’t that I don’t believe that diagnostic changes and the watering down of what a diagnosis means in terms of life skills aren’t affecting rates, those factors are clearly at play, but the ramifications of just “some” of the increase being real seems like a big, big, big deal to me. When your population of interest is every child, a small real increase means a lot of individual children are affected. Sure, it is, possible that older parental age is the only recent development that is affecting rates upward, with all of the rest being diagnostics, but I find little comfort in this notion. If the soft social scientists are wrong, even a little, and there is a true increase in incidence, we may come to regret the solace provided by our collective bobbleheading at the mantra of ‘greater awareness’, for it enabled us to waste a great amount of precious time.
The thing is, it doesn’t really cost us that fucking much to apply more resources to the unimportant, nagging question on the neurodevelopment of a generation of infants. In 2006, Bush signed the ‘Combating Autism Act’, a bill included a billion of dollars for ‘research, surveillance, and treatment’. That’s two hundred million a year. Last year, The Avengers, a stupid and shitty movie, made over a billion dollars. Now, I know there are other funding sources for research, surveillance, and treatment, but there were also a lot of other stupid movies.
I believe that this prioritization is the equivalent of folding 10-J hearts to a dinky four dollar raise; the knowledge we could gain from a relatively small outlay is worth a lot. We shouldn’t be worrying about the cost, we should be considering the payoff; the question we are trying to understand, “are today’s infants neurobiologically different than infants of the last generation?” has a difficult to understate payoff. We shouldn’t be embracing reasons to stop playing, we should chomping at the bit to see the next three cards. This is an easy call.
And yet, there was a collective yawn when the CDC announced 2%.
Funny enough, it was just a few years ago that the UK NHS study of adults found a prevalence of 1%, a finding which was heralded as remarkably strong evidence that autism rates are stable (at the time, 1% was the general value for US children. Oh well.). For some reason, the robustness of the NHS adult findings didn’t cause anyone to exclaim that there is a sort of epidemic-lite, what with US kids having autism as twice the rate as NHS adults. It was a classic case of doublethink; US kids have autism at 2%, England adults have autism at 1%, and autism rates are stable. (Believing that any of the numbers have validity might be closer to triplethink!)
A while ago I saw an interview with Fombonne on the SFARI site that contained the unsurprising byline: ‘Eric Fombonne says that the new CDC report does not necessarily mean that prevalence is increasing’. [Note: This was BEFORE the 2% numbers were reported!] Anyway, he made some interesting points about the messiness of the autism data showing how silly the state by state numbers are; Utah has four times the cases that Alabama does, and utilized different diagnostic methods. In the text of the interview, he reveals Utah also had very low levels of MR (~ 13% instead of ~ 28%), AND had a creepy low male to female ratio. Either there is something really weird going on in Utah, or the ‘numbers’ from Utah and Alabama are not measuring the same thing. It could also be that the numbers are measuring some of the same thing, and there are a couple of weird things going on in Utah (heh). But the bigger point should be that we shouldn’t expect to get a decent understanding of autism rates at a national level by clumping together Alabama numbers, Utah numbers, and whatever other numbers, shaking up them up, and averaging them out. Maybe the headline ought to read, ‘Pretty much somewhere between half a percent, and two percent of children might have something a psychologist, or a doctor, or both, have something called autism, the manifestations and lifelong impact of which vary considerably individually and regionally’, or maybe ‘Autism Rates: Your guess is as good as ours!’.
I don’t trust any set of numbers more than an educated stab in the dark.
[Note: for a slightly different take on ADDM numbers, you can see this interview on SFARI, where Walter Zahorodny reports that detailed analysis of NJ data indicates a likely real increase in rates. Doh!]
I began to wonder; if almost nobody really seems worried about an ‘epidemic lite’, if no almost no one is alarmed that the confidence intervals in our data could incorporate huge numbers of actual people, why am I so concerned? Is my version of the precautionary principle overly cautious? I don’t know the answer to these questions, but I think that part of the answer lies within my journey autism, watching my son’s challenges (and triumphs) unfold, and the knowledge that whatever we find about autism incidence, he will be reliant on other people for his survival for his entire life. That is the gift autism has given him; it doesn’t mean he can’t be happy, it doesn’t mean he can’t experience love, but so far, we cannot detect that autism has provided him anything other than near debilitating OCD, an imperfect sense of dangerous situations, and a lifelong requirement of the kindness and capabilities of others.
I am filled with a pervasive and soul crushing sadness at the possibility of one ‘extra’ child having the same challenges because of changes we have collectively made to the environment, and that is the heart of the semantic dance over how much of the increase is real. That is the Jackpot.
But, your mileage may vary. I know that there are some parents and people out there who have challenges as heavy as my son’s, and they don’t share my sense of panic over the issue. A lot of people credit their autism with benefits. I won’t discount their experiences. Part of the reason we don’t see eye to eye may be that we look at the same question, but see different risks, and different payoffs.