According to recently released studies by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the number of identified cases of autism is climbing rapidly, with 1 in 88 children found to have an autism spectrum disorder. This new number reflects a 23 percent increase from the data released by the CDC two years ago and a 78% increase compared to a decade ago.
The CDC has been issuing surveillance reports on autism in its Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network since 2000. Every two years, researchers look at how many 8-year-olds are on the autism spectrum in 14 states – Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, Missouri, New Jersey, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Utah and Wisconsin.
In the study, researchers reviewed health and school records to determine which children met the criteria for autism, including impaired language, communication and social skills, even if they hadn’t been formally diagnosed.
In 2002, it was estimated that about 1 in 150 children aged 8 had autism or a related disorder such as Asperger’s. In 2006 the number was 1 in 110. The estimate just released, based on 2008 data, puts the incidence of autism at 1 in 88.
The study also found that autism is five times more likely to occur in boys than in girls. The CDC estimates that 1 in 54 boys in the U.S. have autism compared to 1 in 252 girls. Autism is more commonly found in white children than in black and Hispanic children, but the new study indicates the largest increases were among Hispanic and non-Hispanic black children.
Why the increase?
Researchers cannot agree on why the number of autism cases is increasing, but most point to an increased awareness, the expanding definition of the spectrum, or a combination of the two.
“Doctors are getting better at diagnosing autism; communities are getting much better at [providing] services to children with autism, and CDC scientists are getting much better at tracking which kids in the communities we are studying have autism,” Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the CDC, told CNN.com.
Added Frieden, “How much of the increase is a result of better tracking and how much of it is a result of an actual increase, we still don’t know.”
Impact on schools
Special education professionals are already feeling the impact of the rising rates on their budgets. In a recent Boston Globe article, it was reported that in the Boston public schools, 126 students ages 3 and 4 were diagnosed as having autism spectrum disorder, a 70 percent increase from the average of the previous three years.
According to John Verre, Boston’s assistant superintendent for special education and student services, the school system has had to significantly expand its budget to provide special education services to children with autism.
Early diagnosis is the key
Recognizing the signs of autism is essential to early intervention. According to the CDC, some signs to look for include:
- Doesn’t respond to name by 12 months
- Repeats certain actions over and over
- Doesn’t look at objects when another person points to them
- Avoids eye contact and wants to be alone
- Prefers not to be held, touched or cuddled or only cuddles when wants to
- Appears to be unaware when people talk, but responds to other sounds
“Early detection is associated with better outcomes,” said the CDC’s Dr. Frieden. “The earlier the kids are detected, the earlier they could get services and the less impairment they’ll have on their learning and in their lives on a long-term basis, is our best understanding.”