Autism Levels Jump in Israel, Along With the Rest of the World

Parents of autistic children protest outside Prime Minister Netanyahu’s office in Yerushalayim. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The number of Israelis diagnosed with a form of autism has tripled in the past decade, Welfare Ministry officials said Sunday. 80 percent of those on the “autism spectrum” were males, and the autism rate is higher in families of higher social and financial status. In Israel, the Tel Aviv area has the highest percentage of autistic-diagnosed individuals.

The data was released by the Ministry for World Autism Awareness Day, commemorated Sunday. In 2014, one of of 100 children in Israel were diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). In 2000, that figure was one in 500.

The increase in autism diagnoses in Israel was in line with the increase in the rest of the world; in the United States, the Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that 1 in 50 children between the ages of 6 and 17 has been diagnosed with ASD, a 72 percent increase over the number diagnosed in 2007. Over the past 20 years, autism rates have risen by as much as 600 percent.

The reasons for the sharp increase are not clear; some scientists have attributed it to environmental issues, while others claim that better or stricter diagnosis has allowed doctors to label as “autistic” behaviors that in the past might not have been so labeled.

The Ministry said that it has increased its budget for programs for ASD-diagnosed individuals by NIS 51 million, for a total of NIS 300 million. An additional NIS 51 million is set to be added to the budget in 2018. Much of the money is used for communal residences for young people with more serious forms of autism, where they can get treatment and are slowly mainstreamed into society.