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New Autism Numbers Lead to Yet More Confusion about the Disorder

ATLANTA, GA – April is Autism Awareness Month and a new report issued by The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has prompted renewed debate about the causes and scope of the disorder.  The report reveals there has been a nearly 80% increase in reports of Autism Syndrome Disorder since a study in 2007.

Some of the findings of the CDC study include:

  • This marks a 23% increase since our last report in 2009. And, a 78% increase since our first report in 2007. Some of the increase is due to the way children are identified, diagnosed and served in their local communities, although exactly how much is due to these factors in unknown.
  • The number of children identified with ASDs varied widely across the 14 ADDM Network sites, from 1 in 47 (21.2 per 1,000) to 1 in 210 (4.8 per 1,000).
  • ASDs are almost 5 times more common among boys (1 in 54) than among girls (1 in 252).
  • The largest increases over time were among Hispanic children (110%) and black children (91%). 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.
  • There were increases over time among children without intellectual disability (those having IQ scores above 70), although there were also increases in the estimated prevalence of ASDs at all levels of intellectual ability.
  • More children are being diagnosed at earlier ages—a growing number of them by age 3. Still, most children are not diagnosed until after they reach age 4, even though early identification and intervention can help a child access services and learn new skills. This is why CDC’s Learn the Signs. Act Early. program is essential. Through this program, CDC provides free tools to help parents track their child’s development and free resources for doctors and educators. CDC is also working with states and communities to improve early identification.

Many would interpret these findings as meaning we are in the midst of an unprecedented autism epidemic. The CDC’s findings are come from data collected by the Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network. That data relates to children living in 14 regions of the US who were 8 years old in 2008. The result of that data is that 1 in 88 children have some form of ASD.

In truth, these findings do not necessarily reflect national numbers. The 14 communities that make up the ADDM Network represent less than 8 percent of the U.S. population of 8-year-olds in 2008. Within those areas, the prevalence of autism varied widely from 1in 47 in Utah to 1 in 210 in Alabama.

Whether or not autism is increasing to crisis levels is hard to determine for a number of reasons. More study is required to determine how there could be such a disparity between states such as in Alabama and Utah. Some suggest this has to do with the socio-economic makeup of populations. Better educated and high income parents, some say, are more aware of autism and more likely to seek help for their children.

In spite of such uncertainties, groups such as Safe Minds respond to the CDC numbers with alarm. In its document, “The Autism Crisis,” Safe Minds asks, “Can anyone with a conscience claim that this isn’t an epidemic?” In truth, one can hardly blame parents of ASD children for feeling as though this is indeed a crisis since for them it is.

Even with the autism community there is disagreement about the study’s conclusions. The very diagnosis of autism has been refined, meaning fewer children will be diagnosed in the future. Some say the new definition will not cause a significant decrease in diagnoses of autism. Many parents of autistic children fear this means their children could lose the autism diagnosis as a result and the services that go with it.

Even with all of the publicity of the CDC report and Autism Awareness Month we’re still not sure exactly how to define autism. Many parents are still convinced the rise in autism is due to unrestrained use of vaccines, though the medical community by and large resists the idea. And, like many things these days, the findings of the CDC become politicized to point it’s hard to discern medical fact and media hype.

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