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Int J Soc Psychiatry. 1984 Autumn;30(3):163-77.

Is infantile autism a universal phenomenon? An open question.


What we have tried to do in this paper is to question the universality of Infantile Autism as implied by the various definitions which have been provided. Our research of the literature has convinced us that infantile autism appears to be an illness of Western Civilization, and appears in countries of high technology, where the nuclear family dominates. We indicated that no research studies were located in the U.S.A. on Hispanics, in spite of their large number. Furthermore, it was found to be quite rare among Black families. We also saw that the illness seems to be quite infrequent in Latin American countries, Africa, and India, while the rate is high in Japan, but only in westernized families. Tinbergen (1974) likewise feels that infantile autism is "actually on the increase in a number of Western and westernized societies". Two major variables which are interconnected seem to be responsible for the confusion in the findings. One of them is the problem of diagnosis. It would seem that many researchers have extended the definition of infantile autism to include other seriously afflicted children, including those who are brain-damaged. This is no surprise, since such conflicts exist as Ritvo (1981) estimating that there are 300,000 autistic children in the U.S., while a report by the National Institute for Handicapped Research estimates the number of autistic children to be 71,000 (1981). Another aspect of the findings which has been contradictory is that some investigators have found that parents of autistic children tend to be of higher S.E.S., particularly in European studies, while some studies in the U.S.A. did not find such a difference among the parents of autistic and non-autistic children. We have provided some illustrations to indicate that studies which have found no differences were not dealing exclusively with autistic children as defined by Kanner, and often used childhood schizophrenia and autism interchangeably. Cantwell, Baker, and Rutter (1978) have pointed out that this persistent difference of superior S.E.S. of parents of autistic children is an embarrassing finding which is very hard to explain if one holds that the disease is organically determined. In conclusion to his review of the literature on the universality of adult schizophrenia, Torrey (1973) wrote the following: "Studies must be done soon or it will be too late to do them at all. But, until the universal prevalence of schizophrenia becomes an open question, this task is unlikely to be undertaken". The writer of this paper is of the same opinion.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 400 WORDS)

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