Autism on the Rise

Autism rates increase in new CDC study

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

New data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 1 in 88 children is identified as having an autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

The data shows a significant rise since the last major study and has caused some to question whether this rise truly represents a spike in cases, or if it is due to better methods for identifying autism spectrum disorders.

CDC Finds Rising Rates

This new research examined 8-year-olds in 14 communities across the United States in 2008, the broadest look at autism executed by the organization yet. The rate of 1 in 88 which was found represents a 23% increase from the 1 in 110 found previously in a study released in 2009.

The study compared data across many variables, with one of the most marked results being the differences in genders. Based on the study, it is now estimated that 1 in 54 boys has been identified with an ASD compared to 1 in 252 girls. The differences from community to community also differed significantly, from 1 in 47 children in Utah to 1 in 210 children in Alabama.

Though the reasons for these increases are not explored in the study, CDC Director Thomas Frieden, M.D. urged a different focus, saying, “One thing the data tells us with certainty – there are more children and families that need help. We must continue to track autism spectrum disorders because this is the information communities need to guide improvements in services to help children.”

Presence or Discovery Increasing?

Others in the medical community, however, are highlighting the importance of more in-depth exploration of the factors causing the increases. In a recent response to the CDC survey, Thomas Insel, M.D., Director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) preached caution and further investigation.

The NIMH response showed concern with whether the spike in ASDs can truly be attributed to a higher rate of children affected with the disorder, or if it could be attributed to greater rates of detection of the disorder. The question Dr. Insel poses comes down to this: “Does the increase reflect a growing problem, or do these new numbers reflect an improvement in our ability to diagnose and serve those affected?”

One section of data NIMH points to is in the increase of ASDs among Hispanic and African American children, which rose 110% and 91%, respectively. The CDC does make clear that they too predict increased detection is at play, stating “We suspect that some of this increase is due to greater awareness and better identification among these groups. However, this finding explains only part of the increase over time, as more children are being identified in all groups.”

NIMH urges that more research be done to determine the true cause of the rising numbers so that focus can be properly placed to most effectively improve the situation. If rates of children affected are indeed increasing, then causal factors including possible environmental triggers need to be determined. However, if diagnosis is increasing and more children with ASDs are being identified and served, than the focus should switch to improving treatments.

What Does an Autism Spectrum Diagnosis Include?

With more and more children in America receiving an autism diagnosis, it is becoming increasingly important for the public to understand the disease. The CDC explains that individuals with ASDs handle information differently, which can lead to challenging communication and behavioral difficulties. These developmental disorders vary in severity and symptoms, though problems with social interaction are a symptom common throughout the spectrum.

The three major divisions of the spectrum are autistic disorder, Asperger syndrome and Pervasive Developmental Disorder - Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS).

Autistic disorder is the disorder that typically comes to mind when people think of autism. It consists of abnormal mannerisms and interests, with considerable language delays and difficulties with social situations and communication. This is often coupled with an intellectual disability.

Asperger syndrome is typically less severe than autistic disorder, and while patients might have unusual behaviors and social problems, they rarely display issues with language or intellect.

PDD-NOS, or atypical autism, is the category into which those who have some, but not all, indicators for autistic disorder or Asperger syndrome fall into. Their symptoms are milder and might only be in the area of sociability and communication.

Another aspect of the spectrum of autism is the timing in which symptoms show up in children. Though it is accepted that the disorders do begin before the age of three, some with ASDs might seem to develop normally until age two, when the development of skills can stop or reverse. Others might display symptoms from the first few months of their lives. When symptoms do show up, they can include the flapping of hands or the rocking of the body, not responding to their name, difficulties understanding or expressing emotions, and a lack of “pretend” play.

The CDC recommends that parents act quickly whenever there is any concern about the development of their child. Though there is not currently a cure for ASDs, it is believed that the earliest possible treatment can better help autism patients master important life skills.

How much of the rise to an estimated 1 in 88 children is due to increased presence of ASDs and how much of the rise is due to increased diagnosis is still to be determined. Regardless of the cause, it is clear that as autism’s prevalence grows, it becomes increasingly important for the medical community to develop a deeper understanding of the disorder and improve methods of diagnosing, treating and serving those affected.

Review Date: 
April 5, 2012