Welfare Ministry: Autism diagnoses tripled in a decade

Better recognition and testing methods behind increase, says report released on international awareness day

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Illustrative photo of a young boy in a day care center, January 11, 2006. (Nati shohat Flash90)
Illustrative photo of a young boy in a day care center, January 11, 2006. (Nati shohat Flash90)

The number of people diagnosed with autism in Israel tripled in the last decade, according to a report published by the Welfare Ministry on Sunday that linked identification of the condition to local socioeconomic levels.

Figures released to coincide with World Autism Awareness Day showed that by the end of 2016 there were some 14,269 people diagnosed with autism in Israel, compared to 3,949 in 2007.

The rise comes as a result of better recognition of the symptoms of autism over the years, the ministry said, noting the increase matched that of other developed countries.

In 2007, some 5.5 people in 10,000 were diagnosed with autism while by 2016 the rate was an average of 16.9 per 10,000.

Among those with the condition, 80 percent are male, across all age groups. A similar number, 80%, are children or young adults up to the age of 24. The concentration in that age spread is also due to better diagnosis methods and because more efforts are focused on identifying the condition among children than adults, the ministry explained.

Welfare Minister Haim Katz said he was increasing the financial resources available for those on the autism spectrum, a neurodevelopmental disorder whose symptoms include impaired communication and social skills, and compulsive and repetitive behaviors. The disease usually appears in infancy or early childhood, and can be debilitating.

“In the past two years I have doubled the budgets for autistic people and we have dramatically improved the quality of treatment for that population,” said Katz.

Welfare Minister Haim Katz arrives for the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem, December 11, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Welfare Minister Haim Katz arrives for the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s office in Jerusalem, December 11, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The ministry highlighted that in 2017 the budget was increased by NIS 51 million ($14 million) to a total of NIS 300 million ($82.6 million) and that a similar increase will be made in 2018.

One trend revealed by the report was correlation between socioeconomic levels in a community and the number of its autism diagnoses. The higher and more stable the economic conditions, the greater the number of autistic people found due to better health services and greater awareness of the condition, the report said.

Similarly, the highest concentration of autism was found in Tel Aviv and the central region (20.6 per 10,000 people), while the lowest numbers were in Haifa and the north (12.6 per 10,000). In Jerusalem, the capital, and in Beersheba, the largest city in the south of the country, the figures were 15.8 per 10,000 and 15.3 per 10,000, respectively. The ministry noted that the differences were a result of greater awareness and improved testing methods in central regions rather than any specific correlation to those areas.

The Israel Defense Forces runs programs that provide training and assistance to Israelis on the autism spectrum who wish to enlist in the military where their special capabilities are sometimes harnessed for certain tasks requiring meticulous care, including the analysis of sensitive military intelligence.

Luke Tress and Associated Press contributed to this report.

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