The numbers are in: More American children than ever have an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) diagnosis.
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One out of every 68 children has an ASD diagnosis, according to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Below, get insight on what the numbers mean for kids — and for the future of treatment and services.
Diagnosis is on the rise
The CDC report shows a 30 percent increase in autism cases from 2008 to 2010. The study covers more than 5,300 children from 11 U.S. states. It does not cover the entire country, but Cleveland Clinic experts say the numbers reflect similar increases they see in practice.
“These numbers fit with what we’re seeing clinically,” says pediatric psychologist, Leslie Speer, PhD. “All of us are seeing and diagnosing more and more kids.”
However, because the CDC data comes from 2010, it does not reflect changes to the way doctors diagnose autism as of 2013. “Centers will be testing the new criteria in the coming years,” Dr. Speer says. “We don’t know exactly how the numbers will change.”
Autism affects more boys than girls
Boys are 4.5 times more likely to have an ASD diagnosis than girls.
“The numbers highlight the urgency. These families need help. It’s great that we’re identifying them, but then we need the support that follows the diagnosis.”
“There’s a lot of speculation about why, but we need more research,” Dr. Speer says regarding gender differences.
For example, recent research proposed a “female protective model” related to genetic damage. The basic idea: Girls may have a higher threshold for damage before autism appears.
The rates differ by race and ethnicity, too. In the report, 1 in 63 white children had an identified ASD, compared with 1 in 81 black children and 1 in 93 Hispanic children.
Dr. Speer says many minority children slip through the cracks, which is why outreach efforts are crucial. “In certain communities, there is less access to medical information — and even a stigma about mental health services,” she notes.
Awareness has done its job
The new report does not identify why cases are on the rise. But beyond environmental factors, experts think more autism awareness and media attention play a part.
“The increase in prevalence is largely due to awareness,” says autism expert, Thomas Frazier II, PhD. “We see this in how we are better capturing high-functioning ASD cases.”
More parents than ever are having their children screened. The screening techniques have gotten better, too.
“There has been a real push to identify kids as early as possible, because we know that leads to better outcomes,” Dr. Speer says. “It doesn’t explain all of the increase, but it probably explains some.”
There’s room for improvement
According to the CDC report, less than half of children with ASD received evaluations before age 3. Most were not diagnosed until after age 4.
Parents should understand the value of early screening. Early diagnosis — as young as age 2 — leads to better long-term results.
Reports like the CDC’s spread the word, Dr. Frazier notes. Putting autism in the spotlight can help get funding for better services for children, for example. It also highlights the need for insurance to cover interventions for autism, he says.
“The numbers highlight the urgency,” Dr. Speer adds. “These families need help. It’s great that we’re identifying them, but then we need the support that follows the diagnosis.”