Autism Is More Common Than We Thought

One in 68 American children has some form of autism, according to new CDC data.

150 baby strollers are displayed in Central Park to draw draw awareness on World Autism Awareness Day on April 2, 2009 in New York City.
National Journal
Sarah Mimms
March 27, 2014, 9:04 a.m.

More Amer­ic­an chil­dren have an aut­ism spec­trum dis­order than was pre­vi­ously thought, ac­cord­ing to a new re­port Thursday from the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion.

One in 68 Amer­ic­an chil­dren is now on the spec­trum, more than double the num­ber of kids who had some form of aut­ism in CDC’s 2000 study and a 30 per­cent in­crease from CDC’s most re­cent study, re­leased last year, when one in 88 chil­dren were thought to be af­fected.

However, CDC cau­tions that it can­not know wheth­er the dis­ease is ac­tu­ally af­fect­ing more young people, or wheth­er it is merely a case of in­creased aware­ness of the dis­ease lead­ing to more dia­gnoses.

CDC es­tim­ates, over­all, that about 1.2 mil­lion young people un­der 21 liv­ing in the United States have some form of aut­ism.

The dis­ease con­tin­ues to be much more pre­val­ent among young boys than girls, a long-stand­ing mys­tery for aut­ism re­search­ers. Ac­cord­ing to the latest data, four and half times more boys (one in 42) are on the spec­trum than girls (one in 189).

It is also more com­mon among white chil­dren than among Afric­an-Amer­ic­an or His­pan­ic kids. However, CDC’s Coleen Boyle said on a con­fer­ence call with re­port­ers Thursday that the agency be­lieves that dif­fer­ence is an is­sue of re­port­ing and dia­gnos­is, not a real dif­fer­ence in pre­val­ence between white, Afric­an-Amer­ic­an, and His­pan­ic chil­dren.

Per­haps most in­ter­est­ingly, Boyle said, the num­ber of chil­dren with av­er­age and above-av­er­age in­tel­li­gence who have been dia­gnosed with an aut­ism spec­trum dis­order has grown sig­ni­fic­antly. “Over the last dec­ade, the most not­able change in the char­ac­ter­ist­ics of chil­dren iden­ti­fied with aut­ism is the grow­ing num­ber who have av­er­age or above-av­er­age in­tel­li­gence from a third in 2002 to nearly 50 per­cent in 2010,” Boyle said in the con­fer­ence call.

Re­search­ers are not sure, however, wheth­er the in­crease is at­trib­ut­able to doc­tors dia­gnos­ing more in­tel­li­gent chil­dren with the dis­ease, an ac­tu­al in­crease in the pre­val­ence of the dis­ease among chil­dren of av­er­age and high in­tel­li­gence, or a com­bin­a­tion of the two.

Robert Ring, the chief sci­ence of­ficer for Aut­ism Speaks, an ad­vocacy and re­search or­gan­iz­a­tion, warns that the dis­ease is still not be­ing dia­gnosed early enough. On av­er­age, dia­gnoses come around the age of 4 and a half, even “though aut­ism can be iden­ti­fied and dia­gnosed as early as age 2,” Ring says. That may be an aware­ness is­sue.

“This means that many in­di­vidu­als are miss­ing out on the trans­form­at­ive out­comes that in­tens­ive early in­ter­ven­tions can of­fer,” Ring says. “If we’re go­ing to make a dir­ect and mean­ing­ful im­pact in the lives of these chil­dren, re­du­cing the av­er­age age of dia­gnos­is must be a pri­or­ity mov­ing for­ward.”

The Health and Hu­man Ser­vices De­part­ment will launch an “un­pre­ced­en­ted” ini­ti­at­ive Thursday to help aid in earli­er dia­gnoses, Kath­er­ine Beck­man, a seni­or policy ad­viser for HHS’s Ad­min­is­tra­tion for Chil­dren and Fam­il­ies, said Thursday. The ef­fort will in­clude “a com­pen­di­um of first-line, re­search-based screen­ing tools” for fam­il­ies, as well as oth­er tools, to help them check and treat their chil­dren.

Aut­ism Speaks and oth­er groups are work­ing to lobby Con­gress for ad­di­tion­al re­search fund­ing and will be speak­ing along­side Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., who co-chairs the Con­gres­sion­al Aut­ism Caucus, and oth­er mem­bers Thursday.

The CDC re­port is based on a sur­vey of the med­ic­al and spe­cial-edu­ca­tion re­cords of 8-year-old chil­dren in 11 com­munit­ies across the U.S. for 2010. CDC uses that data, Boyle said, be­cause most chil­dren with an aut­ism spec­trum dis­order have been dia­gnosed by age 8.

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