The remarkable claim that the autism epidemic is an artefact of the popularity of the film Rain Man is made by the developmental psychologist and autism expert Prof Uta Frith of University College, London in a recent BBC news item which purports to make fun of scientific myths created by the movies. Frith is known for coining the concept of "theory of mind" in relation to autism in 1985 in collaboration with Simon Baron-Cohen, and also holds a professorship at Aarhus University, home of Poul Thorsen. The film Rain Man, starring Dustin Hoffman, appeared in 1988. This is the relevant extract from the BBC news item:
Interviewer: “The film Rain Man was actually the turning point in the awareness of autism.”
Frith: “If you look at the kind of curves that you see about the prevalence of autism there was an apparent increase in prevalence but of course it is really an increase in awareness.”
1987-8 was indeed the period in which infants in the first wave of the autism epidemic in Britain and the United States were being born, but of course they would not have been diagnosed in 1988, and it seems preposterous that doctors and scientists (presumably including Prof Frith) would have been so influenced by a popular film (they certainly should not have been). In 1988, for instance, Prof Frith was 47 and had completed a PhD on autism twenty years before - where, then, are all the cases that she missed? The film is about a middle-aged man not about young children. I can find no papers on Pubmed discussing, let alone supporting, a Rain Man hypothesis.
As it is this after dinner tittle-tattle will now be repeated as solemn gospel by people who “heard it on the BBC”. It looks more as if Prof Frith is trying to create myth here than destroy one. Why would she do that? Perhaps she ought to consult her conscience about all the families desperately battling to obtain services for their children while professionals engage in whimsical and misleading fantasies about their historical predicament.
John Stone is UK Contributing Editor to Age of Autism.