The U.S. government’s estimate of autism has moved up again to 1 in 68 U.S. children, a 30 percent increase in two years.
But health officials say the new number may not mean autism is more common. Much of the increase is believed to be from a cultural and medical shift, with doctors diagnosing autism more frequently, especially in children with milder problems.
“We can’t dismiss the numbers. But we can’t interpret it to mean more people are getting the disorder,” said Marisela Huerta, a psychologist at the New York-Presbyterian Center for Autism and the Developing Brain in suburban White Plains, N.Y.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released the latest estimate Thursday. The Atlanta-based agency said its calculation means autism affects roughly 1.2 million Americans under 21. Two years ago, the CDC put the estimate at 1 in 88 children, or about 1 million.
The cause or causes of autism are still not known. Without any blood test or other medical tests for autism, diagnosis is not an exact science. It’s identified by making judgments about a child’s behavior.
Thursday’s report is considered the most comprehensive on the frequency of autism. Researchers gathered data in 2010 from areas in 11 states. South Carolina wasn’t one of those states.
Helping S.C.’s children with autism
South Carolina took a big step in helping children with autism and their families by passing Ryan’s Law in 2007. The law requires insurance companies to cover treatments for autism up to age 16. Also, the state has provided money for a program to provide early intervention therapy for children with autism through the Department of Disabilities and Special Needs.
But autism advocates in the state say the most recent CDC report spotlights a major concern – dealing with the ever-growing wave of autistic children reaching adult years. “There need to be more services for the kids who are transitioning out of high school,” said Kim Thomas, CEO of the S.C. Autism Society. “We’ve gotten better at identifying the people in that wave, but we don’t have appropriate services for them.”
Thomas would like to see the state agencies for vocational rehabilitation and for disabilities get together in an effort to train young adults with autism. Many on the high functioning end of the autism spectrum are very intelligent but lack social skills. Aimed in the right direction, and with the proper coaching, they can be great employees, Thomas said.
The CDC report focused on younger children. The researchers checked health and school records to see which 8-year-olds met the criteria for autism, even if they hadn’t been formally diagnosed. The CDC started using this method in 2007 when it came up with an estimate of 1 in 150 children. Two years later, it went to 1 in 110. In 2012, it went to 1 in 88.
Experts aren’t surprised by the growing numbers, and some say all it reflects is that doctors, teachers and parents are increasingly likely to say a child with learning and behavior problems is autistic. Some CDC experts say screening and diagnosis are clearly major drivers, but that they can’t rule out some actual increase as well.
“We cannot say what portion is from better diagnosis and improved understanding versus if there’s a real change,” said Coleen Boyle, the CDC official overseeing research into children’s developmental disabilities.
For decades, autism meant kids with severe language, intellectual and social impairments and unusual, repetitious behaviors. But the definition has gradually expanded and now includes milder, related conditions.