The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has just released a new report on autism in children and the numbers are staggering: in the last decade, autism spectrum diagnoses have increased 78%. They now say that one in every 88 children has an autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
Since the CDC’s last report in 2009 alone, the number of children identified with these illnesses — which include autism, Asperger’s, and Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS) — has gone up 23%. The statistics were compiled by looking at the number of eight-year-olds in 14 states who were receiving services for ASD such as therapy and school support.
The CDC researchers believe the increase in autism in children is due to better awareness and identification by parents, communities and healthcare providers, and several experts have chimed in to say that, as scary as the numbers sound, the increase could actually be a good sign. It means that more kids who need them are being connected to services and treatment.
Strollerderby writer and Salon contributor Joslyn Gray, who has two children with Asperger’s, agrees. “I feel that the increase is due to better awareness and better, more widely-available tools for evaluation, such as regular quick screenings by pediatricians,” said Gray. “I don’t believe there are actually more autistic people than there used to be, only that we are now better at identifying children and adults on the spectrum, and appreciating the neurodiversity that exists in our society.”
We asked Shannon Des Roches Rosa, who follows autism science and diagnosis trends closely as editor of the Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism and is one of Babble’s Top 25 Autism Spectrum Bloggers, whether she was concerned about the number. She said she wasn’t surprised at all, especially, “… given last year’s news about autism prevalence rates of 1 in 38 in South Korea. If you look at the CDC’s report closely, you’ll see that rates vary widely by region, and that part of the increase is due to missed diagnoses among the Latino and African-American children. Underdiagnosis and misdiagnosis among minority children is something folks like Holly Robinson Peete have been talking about since 2010.”
Ellen Seidman, author of the award-winning blog Love That Max and mother of a special needs child, adds that, “The stats on the rise of autism rates are alarming, to say the least, and raise a whole lot of questions about why. What’s important for parents of newly-diagnosed kids to know is that there are so many resources available now, some of which didn’t exist even five years ago. There’s a growing number of dedicated schools, treatments and services for children with autism, along with a growing awareness of effective therapies such as ABA (applied behavior analysis). There are outstanding handbooks like the Thinking Person’s Guide To Autism, and even entertainment initiatives like sensory-friendly movie screenings. There’s also a whole lot of online support for parents of kids with autism and any special needs.”
The CDC report also indicates that while it’s very important to identify children on the autism spectrum early by screening them between 18 and 24 months, that still isn’t happening. While the study did find an increase in the number of children identified by age three, according to CNN, “… most children were diagnosed between ages 4 and 5, when a child’s brain is already more developed and harder to change.”
Another key finding of the report is that autism is five times more common in boys than girls. One in every 54 boys is on the autism spectrum. Gray wrote about this today, noting that in her house the prevalence of ASDs is two in four.
Seidman wants parents who may fear these statistics to know that special needs children are still wonderful children: “Raising a child with special needs sure isn’t cake; I’m nine years into this journey, and I still struggle (my son, Max, has cerebral palsy). But I wish more people realized that getting a diagnosis of autism or any other special need is not the tragedy the world makes it out to be. So often, people only hear the ‘dis’ in disability and forget what kids and adults with autism and other special needs are capable of.”
What do you think of these new numbers? Are you comforted that more children are being identified, or concerned that we have an epidemic on our hands?