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Autism Rates Continue to Climb

March 27, 2014

Centers for Disease ControlOne in sixty-eight children aged eight has some form of autism, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The new estimate, which is based on data gathered in 2010, represents a 29% increase over the CDC’s 2008 data (published in 2012) of one in eighty-eight children. It is believed that at least in part, the new findings are the result of more recognition and diagnosis of autism spectrum disorders, particularly among children with average or above average intelligence. But whether the new figures reflect a rising rate of autism, better detection of the disorder, or both, it is clear that the prevalence of autism among children is significantly higher than previously thought.

There are three autism spectrum disorders – autistic disorder, pervasive developmental disorder (PDD), and Asperger’s syndrome. Autistic disorder is characterized by the most severe forms of social and language impairment, repetitive behaviors, and often mental retardation and seizures. Children with PDD have better language skills and show fewer repetitive behaviors. Asperger’s syndrome, the mildest form of autism, is marked by poor social skills and, frequently, normal to above average intelligence. It affects boys three times more than girls.

The CDC examined health care and educational records from 2010 in eleven states (Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Maryland, Missouri, New Jersey, North Carolina, Utah, and Wisconsin), looking first for indications of behaviors or diagnostic descriptions associated with autism spectrum disorders. Records selected for review were then studied further to see if the child met formal diagnostic criteria for autism spectrum disorders.  A total of 60,130 records for 47,371 children were reviewed. 5,338 children met the criteria for autism spectrum disorder.

There were several notable findings.

  • Rates of autism spectrum disorder are much higher for boys. Approximately one in forty-two boys and one in 189 girls were identified as having ASD.

  • The "most notable change" in characteristics of children with ASD is the growing number who have average or above average intellectual ability, a figure that has risen from 32% in 2002 to 46% in 2010. "A large proportion of the observed ASD prevalence increase can be attributed to children with average or above average intellectual ability (IQ >85)," said the investigators.

  • Although ASD can be diagnosed at age two, most children are not diagnosed until they are at least four years of age.

  • Prevalence estimates have increased 123% since 2002.

The authors state that the global prevalence of autism is twenty to thirty times higher today than when the first epidemiological studies were conducted in the late 60’s and early 70’s.

Understanding what is behind the rise is difficult, they say, due to the complex nature of autism, the lack of diagnostic biomarkers (measurable substances in the body that indicate a particular disease or condition), and changing diagnostic criteria.

The new report, which did not address the possible causes of autism, is available at the CDC website.

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