(Editor’s Note: Before you get too excited that the CDC is finally admitting that autism rates have jumped, they have a reason. Multiple ones, actually. Read on.)

According to data released by the CDC at the end of last month, about 1 in 59 children in the United States has autism, with four times as many boys as girls having the condition. The data is based on a 2014 survey of 325,483 children across 11 states and was collected by the CDC’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network (ADDM).

But previously, that number was 1 in 68 children.

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While those numbers are clearly rising, that’s not necessarily what that means according to Catherine Rice, the director of the Emory Autism Center in Atlanta and principal investigator for the ADDM from 2001 to 2010. Rather, “The current ADDM report seems to indicate that awareness of [autism] characteristics is broadening and this contributes to increases in [autism] prevalence overall.”1 Meaning, the rise in prevalence may be partly due to improved services for children who were previously missed. Especially poorer children; “…autism prevalence is consistently higher in white children than in black or Hispanic children—a pattern researchers attribute to disparities in access to medical care.”2 (If that’s the case then our autism rates have been higher than almost all other developed nations for many more years than previously thought. And if that’s the case, this is an even bigger travesty; that we have simply ignored this epidemic should be considered criminal.)

  • the new survey focused on 8-year-olds because most kids would have had a medical or school evaluation by then
  • ADDM reviewers looked for signs of autism in the medical records for kids in select counties and states across the U.S
  • reviewers included children who showed signs of autism even without an official diagnosis and excluded some kids with an autism diagnosis if their features didn’t meet criteria for autism as outlined in the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” (DSM)

What the report showed were dramatic differences in autism prevalence among states; the highest prevalence at 2.93 percent was in New Jersey while the lowest at 1.31 percent was found in Arkansas.

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But again, researchers believe these “new” numbers might just actually “reflect a disparity in access to healthcare and in autism awareness among different counties, states with a lower prevalence may have more children with unrecognized autism.”3

“The reviewers had access to education records in one state—Wisconsin—for the first time, and to more records for Colorado than they had previously. These two states showed the highest increase in prevalence: The reported prevalence in Wisconsin rose by 31 percent between 2012 and 2014, and the prevalence in Colorado rose by 29 percent.

What’s more, all of the states with robust special education records show prevalence estimates over the national average.”4

One thing the team found particularly concerning was that, despite rising awareness, only 42 percent of children with autism had a diagnostic evaluation by age 3, even though around 85 percent showed signs of the condition by that time. And with autism, time is of the essence.

To read the full Scientific American article and check out the helpful infographics, click here.

The new report used the DSM-5 to diagnose and the criteria for autism in this current version (published in 2013) is believed to be more stringent than the DSM-IV. Not surprisingly, using the DSM-5 yielded 4 percent fewer cases. When the ADDM creates their 2016 report they will do so using only the DSM-5 criteria. We shall see what the numbers look like then.

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I must admit, this doesn’t comfort me anyway. If anything, it feels as if the walls are closing in around us even quicker.

To read the full Scientific American article and check out the helpful infographics, click here.

Sources and References

  1. Scientific American, April 27, 2018.
  2. Scientific American, April 27, 2018.
  3. Scientific American, April 27, 2018.
  4. Scientific American, April 27, 2018.