Awareness month spurs web searches for autism

June 26, 2014
Google search trends for the term "autism" from 2010 through 2014, showing peaks in searches in April of each year and smaller peaks in the fall

Autism Awareness Month each April brings blue lights and puzzle shapes out to shine in many communities – but does it actually lead to increased autism awareness? According to a new analysis of web search trends by researchers at Drexel University, it does appear to drive an increase in Google searches for autism – by a third over searches in March in recent years.

Brian K. Lee, PhD, an assistant professor in the Drexel University School of Public Health and research fellow of the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute, was senior author of the study with public health doctoral student Elizabeth DeVilbiss, published early online this month in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

Using the Google trends tool (google.com/trends), they analyzed web queries for the terms "" and "Asperger's" from January 2004 through April 2014 in the United States. They also compared these trends with searches for "ADHD" to assess the possible influence of broader trends in public interest in mental health issues of special interest to younger populations.

Each April, from 2004 through 2014 (except 2005), web search interest in autism spiked – up by an average of 26 percent between March and April, followed by an average decrease by 24 percent between April and May. Even sharper April spikes have occurred from 2007 through 2014, with the average March-April increase at 33 percent in those years.

A secondary, smaller increase in "autism" searches occurred each fall. Similar spring and fall oscillations occurred in searches for "ADHD" but without the sharp spike observed in April for "autism." The spring and fall oscillations may reflect a rebound in web searches in general, which tend to drop off in summer and winter, Lee said.

The overall search interest in "autism" was sustained but not increasing over the ten-year span the researchers analyzed. In contrast, "Asperger's" searches had a long-term increasing trend, with the term's popularity overall 255 percent higher in January 2014 in comparison to January 2004.

Lee and DeVelbiss pointed out a few additional spikes in the search trends that may correspond to high-impact media coverage of autism and Asperger's disorder outside of the April awareness campaigns. The Google trends tool allows users to overlay related news headlines for search terms alongside the trend chart. Lee warned that conclusions about the correlation of news headlines to search trends should be considered with caution because many could be simply accidental correlations. However, three non-April spikes were of particular note:

  • In September 2007, the largest monthly increase (80 percent) in searches for "autism" during the 2004-2014 span occurred. In this month, The Oprah Winfrey Show aired a high-profile segment on September 18 featuring Jenny McCarthy and Holly Robinson Peete discussing their sons with autism.
  • In February 2005, another peak in "autism" searches occurred, correlating with a 10-part series on autism on The Today Show, February 21-25, 2005.
  • In December 2012, searches for "Asperger's" increased by 122 percent over November 2012. This increase corresponded with heavy publicity regarding the planned elimination of Asperger's as a standalone diagnosis in the DSM-V.

Autism is not the only condition for which awareness months have been linked to increased search activity. A 2011 study in BMC Cancer reported that searches for breast cancer increased each October during Breast Cancer Awareness Month between 2004 and 2009, but much lower search activity occurred for prostate and lung cancers during their respective awareness months. Search activity is also far from the entire picture of creating awareness of autism and other conditions. Whether useful and accessible information is available as a result of that search is important.

"Whether increased awareness is meaningful is another question," Lee said. "When a parent performs a , does it lead to recognition of autism in their child? Does it lead to seeking clinical testing and services?" Search trends can't answer those questions, but can provide a glimpse of public interest in a topic.

Explore further: Google Trends info is placed on inbox duty for subscribers

More information: Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, link.springer.com/article/10.1 … 07/s10803-014-2160-4

Related Stories

Google Trends info is placed on inbox duty for subscribers

April 20, 2014
(Phys.org) —Google Trends has added a new service to its mix, where users can enter email subscriptions for Google Trends, and can be sent notifications on topics of interest, showing them what is popular around the web ...

Diagnosing and treating autism

April 18, 2014
April is National Autism Awareness Month. The Child Development Clinic at Children's Hospital of Richmond at VCU (CHoR) provides comprehensive assessment for pediatric patients with developmental delays or disabilities, including ...

Study explores link between smoking during pregnancy, autism

April 26, 2012
Women who smoke in pregnancy may be more likely to have a child with high-functioning autism, such as Asperger's Disorder, according to preliminary findings from a study by researchers involved in the U.S. autism surveillance ...

Adults with Asperger Syndrome at significantly higher risk of suicidal thoughts than the general population

June 25, 2014
Adults with the autism spectrum condition known as Asperger Syndrome are nine times more likely to experience suicidal thoughts than people from the UK general population, according to the first large-scale clinical study ...

MRSA spread could be tracked through Google search patterns

May 23, 2011
(PhysOrg.com) -- Google searches are apparently providing much more important information than just a typical search for a local restaurant or research for a term paper. Google trends are also providing much more information ...

Rising awareness may explain spike in autism diagnoses

March 25, 2014
Young boys continue to have the highest rate of autism diagnoses, but Danish doctors are diagnosing more girls, teenagers and adults with the disorder than they did in the mid-1990s. That's the finding from a 16-year study ...

Recommended for you

Late-breaking mutations may play an important role in autism

July 17, 2017
A study of nearly 6,000 families, combining three genetic sequencing technologies, finds that mutations that occur after conception play an important role in autism. A team led by investigators at Boston Children's Hospital ...

Females with autism show greater difficulty with day-to-day tasks than male counterparts

July 14, 2017
Women and girls with autism may face greater challenges with real world planning, organization and other daily living skills, according to a study published in the journal Autism Research.

Researchers investigate possible link between carnitine deficiency and autism

July 13, 2017
Researchers are always looking for new clues to the causes of autism, with special emphasis on prevention or treatment. At Baylor College of Medicine, Dr. Arthur Beaudet has been following clinical and genetic clues in patients ...

How children look at mom's face is influenced by genetic factors and altered in autism

July 12, 2017
New research has uncovered compelling evidence that genetics plays a major role in how children look at the world and whether they have a preference for gazing at people's eyes and faces or at objects.

Oxytocin improves social abilities in some kids with autism, study finds

July 10, 2017
Children with autism showed improved social behavior when treated with oxytocin, a hormone linked to social abilities, according to a new study by researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine. Children with low ...

Possible early diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder

June 29, 2017
Measuring a set of proteins in the blood may enable earlier diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), according to a study from the Peter O'Donnell Jr. Brain Institute at UT Southwestern Medical Center.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.