Education Quandary: I teach more and more children on the autistic spectrum. Why is the incidence of this going up so fast?

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Hilary's advice

Autism is the name given to a wide range of developmental disorders that affect speech, understanding and communication. Symptoms can range from an awkward child who finds it hard to socialise, to a child who is totally locked up inside himself and unable to connect with anyone. It affects mainly boys, and last year new research from Cambridge University suggested that it could affect as many as one in 58 children, although most people accept the incidence is more like one in 100.

Many primary schools claim that they are seeing a rising number of autistic pupils in their classrooms, but this could be at least partly a result of improved diagnosis and awareness.

The causes of autism remain unknown. Scientists from London and New York have recently pointed a finger at older fathers, suggesting that babies born to fathers over 40 are six times more likely to develop the condition than those born to younger fathers, probably because of genetic mutations in the sperm of older men.

Other researchers in the US have suggested that too much early television watching, which impedes social development, could play a part in the rising incidence of autism.

Some people believe that exposure to pesticides and pollution is a trigger, while the use of the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine continues to worry parents despite recent research that yet again failed to demonstrate any link between it and autism.

It is obviously a complex picture in which both genes and environment most likely play a part. Meanwhile, growing numbers of parents and teachers such as you are struggling to help the unfortunate children who have the condition.

Readers' advice

Tragically, large numbers of parents will tell you that it was the MMR vaccination that triggered their children's autism, and related problems such as bowel disease. This is such a huge hot potato that no government department will face it and the implications of it, but parents – and their GPs – know. To say that early signs of autism merely coincide with the time the MMR jab is given is a cop-out and in no way explains the huge rise seen by schools and special-needs teachers.

Susan Hamlyn, London, W5

With more understanding, we are able to notice the symptoms and provide help and support earlier in schools.

What might have been put down previously as lack of attention, or just disruptive behaviour, is now being recognised as within the autistic spectrum.

Fred Pudsey, Edinburgh

For most of my GP career, I was told to space vaccines three or more weeks apart, so it does concern me that I know of no clinical trial directly comparing spaced measles, mumps and rubella vaccines with MMR, which was introduced in 1988, around the time that autism began to be more common.

Dr PJW Smith, Halifax

Next Week's Quandary

Dear Hilary, Shouldn't schools provide timetables of GCSE coursework deadlines so that parents can do their bit and nag their children? All I get is letters telling me that my son has missed deadlines that I did not know existed. And if I then ring individual teachers, I often find out that the so-called deadline is not the final date after all.

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