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.
Dr. Brian K. Lee, 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 Ms. 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 search queries for the terms “autism” 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.