On the eve of the annual World Autism Awareness Day, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) updated its estimates that show a significant increase in the disorder's prevalence over the previous five years.
The CDC report, released on March 29 and published in this week’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), states that more than 1 percent, or 1 in every 88 children, is diagnosed with autism today, including 1 in 54 boys. This is a 78 percent increase in 6 years (2002-2008) and a 10-fold (1000 percent) increase in reported prevalence over the last 40 years. The report uses the same methodology that produced the CDC’s 2009 prevalence findings of 1 in 110 children with autism.
Autism is a general term used to describe a group of complex developmental brain disorders caused by a combination of genes and environmental influences. These disorders are characterized, in varying degrees, by social and behavioral challenges, as well as repetitive behaviors.
Depending on the symptoms, a person diagnosed would be placed on the autism spectrum, which includes Asperger Syndrome, Childhood Disintegrative Disorder, Rett Syndrome and Pervasive Development Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS).
- Increased funding for basic science uncovering the genetic underpinnings of autism;
- Increased funding for environmental research detecting the causes of autism;
- Accelerated funding and development of effective medicines and treatments;
- Commitment to a strategy where all children with autism from every background are diagnosed no later than 18 months of age;
- Commitment to a National Training Corps to recruit more therapists and service providers, as well as specially trained teachers and teacher assistants;
- A strategy to address the growing needs of adults with autism, specifically around continuing education, employment, housing/residential living and community integration.
"Our commitment must meet the challenge," said Autism Speaks co-founder Bob Wright. "We need the President, the public health agencies and representatives from both sides of the aisle to come together. A national emergency needs a national strategy. Anything less won't be enough."
The CDC's study collected data through its Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring network, made up of 14 areas in the U.S. According to the CDC, these 14 communities comprised over eight percent of the United States population of 8-year-olds in 2008. Information was collected on children who were 8 years old because previous work has shown that, by this age, most children with ASDs have been identified for services.
The estimates also show that a growing number children are getting diagnosed at earlier ages, some at age three, but most by four-years-old. There has also been significant increases in diagnoses in African American and Hispanic children, a number that the CDC attributes to education of the disorder.
To help parents remain aware of the signs to watch during a child's development, the CDC has published checklists and guidelines of milestones to follow during the first five years. The categories to monitor include social skills, communication, cognitive abilities, motor and physical development. For example, if your four-month old has not started babbling or is unable to bring his hands to his mouth, you should notify your pediatrician.
The earlier a development disorder is diagnosed, the earlier a child can have access to local, county and sate programs that will provide specialists who can improve the child's progress and formulate development strategies for the parents.
Christina Carty, executive director of the greater Delaware Valley chapter of Autism Speaks, says that part of the reason why the estimates have grown is the increased awareness of the warning signs.
"The fact that it we are getting better at identifying it is only a portion," said Carty. "The other portion is simply that more people are affected by it. We are doing research into the environmental and genetic causes. Autism is a complicated, mysterious disease, and we still have a lot of learning to do."