Autism overflows: increasing prevalence and proliferating theories

Neuropsychol Rev. 2008 Dec;18(4):273-86. doi: 10.1007/s11065-008-9074-x. Epub 2008 Nov 18.


This selective review examines the lack of an explanation for the sharply increasing prevalence of autism, and the lack of any synthesis of the proliferating theories of autism. The most controversial and most widely disseminated notion for increasing prevalence is the measles-mumps-rubella/thimerosal vaccine theory. Less controversial causes that have been proposed include changes in autism diagnostic criteria, increasing services for autism, and growing awareness of the disorder. Regardless of its causes, the increasing prevalence of autism has put pressure on the field of autism research to generate productive and predictive theories of autism. However, the heterogeneity of brain deficits, impaired behaviors, and genetic variants in autism have challenged researchers and theorists, and despite 45 years of research, no standard causal synthesis has emerged. Research going forward should assume that autism is an aggregation of myriad independent disorders of impaired sociality, social cognition, communication, and motor and cognitive skills.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Autistic Disorder* / epidemiology
  • Autistic Disorder* / etiology
  • Autistic Disorder* / therapy
  • Humans
  • Prevalence
  • Thimerosal / adverse effects
  • Vaccines / adverse effects


  • Vaccines
  • Thimerosal