Why Did Autism Surge 30%?

Emily Shire
Why Did Autism Surge 30%?

One in 68 children in the U.S. are identified with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) according to the latest estimates from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC); this estimate is 30 percent higher than the prevalence reported in 2012. CDC says that since the previous estimate of 1 in 88 children identified with ASD, the criteria used to diagnose, treat, and provide services have not changed.

Overall, the surveillance summary report, “Prevalence of Autism Spectrum Disorder among Children Aged 8 Years—Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network, 11 Sites, United States, 2010,” estimates that there are 1.2 million children under the age of 21 with autism. The study based its numbers off of data solely from eight-year-olds (the “peak age of identification,” according to the CDC) in communities from 11 states: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Maryland, Missouri, New Jersey, North Carolina, Utah, and Wisconsin.

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While the estimates may seem like a startling rise in just two years, Alison Singer, the co-founder and president of the Autism Science Foundation, says she “wouldn’t describe this data as shocking.”

The latest report confirmed many of the previous findings, including the fact that ASD is almost five times as common in boys than as girls: 1 in 142 boys versus 1 in 189 girls are diagnosed. Also, white children are more likely to be diagnosed with ASD than black and Hispanic children. Experts credit that disparity to a difference in access to healthcare resources and well-trained experts, which they also believe explains why ASD prevalence ranges from 1 in 45 in New jersey to 1 in 175 in Alabama.

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To Singer, “The most important piece of data within the data is that the vast majority of the increase is not with children with intellectual disabilities.” Indeed, nearly half of the children identified with ASD in the latest estimates had average or above average IQ levels, compared to just a third a decade ago.

Dr. Colleen Boyle of the CDC confirmed in a press conference Wednesday, “The most notable change in characteristic of children identified is those with average or above average intelligence.” Boyle says no one factor is at play.

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She credits both greater autism awareness and better training of clinicians and community health experts, but she emphasized that the latest data shows rather than explains the rise. “Our systems tells us what’s going on,” she says, but noted that it only “gives us clues about the why.”

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