Karen Miller gave birth to a baby boy about the same time she heard startling news about baby boys in general.
A new national report in the Oct. 5 journal Pediatrics revealed that 1 percent of U.S. children age 3 to 17 have an autism spectrum disorder. This comprises an estimated prevalence of 1 in every 91 children, or roughly 673,000 cases nationwide.
Video by Liz Hoffman/Chicago
This new projection is a dramatic increase from the 1 in 150 prevalence rates reported just a few years ago, let alone the 1 in every 10,000 rates from a quarter century ago.
Making matters even scarier for Miller, who now has three young sons, the report states the odds of having autism are four times higher for boys than for girls.
"It put chills up my spine," says Miller, a St. John, Ind., mother who works as a massage therapist in Chicago. "Those new numbers are frightening for new mothers."
The study, using federal data and conducted via a telephone survey of 78,000 parents, also noted that white children are more likely than minority children to have autism, a complex developmental disability and by far the fastest-growing one. The condition typically appears during the first three years of life, primarily impacting development in the areas of social interaction and communication skills.
Toni Modglin doesn't believe her 7-year-old son, Chase, is part of the current "epidemic" in this country, or that his life is somehow "destroyed" by the condition.
"Chase isn't broken and somehow needs to be fixed," says Modglin about her son's autism diagnosis.
Modglin doesn't believe that a child's diagnosis within the autism spectrum is strictly the doom-and-gloom that gets all the media attention these days. It also doesn't have to spark conspiracy-theory crusades against mercury poisoning, preschool vaccines or something in the water, she says.
Chase, who was diagnosed at 3 as severe on the autism spectrum, has been "different from the very beginning. But he's happy, content and making great progress," Modglin says. "Autism isn't a death sentence, it's an adjustment."
For decades, autism had been viewed as a mysterious disorder emerging like a serpent from the genetic lagoon, snatching young children while parents watched in helpless disbelief. Only recently has mainstream medicine acknowledged that environmental factors form another stream into the autism pool.
Some parents believe their children's autism was triggered by mercury poisoning, primarily induced by a vaccine preservative called thimerosal, during routine immunizations. But experts and federal health officials repeatedly insist there is no link between autism and vaccines.
Parents and officials on the front lines of autism advocacy were not overly surprised by the new report and its alarming projections. Most were convinced that it would simply reveal what they already knew: Autism is a national health crisis.
"We expected these new numbers because we see it first-hand here," says Karen McDonough, executive director of the Autism Society of Illinois. "The number of families who phone us with questions has increased 70 percent since 2007."
Researchers suggest the increased prevalence might be partly explained by methodological differences between these new surveys, with the inclusion of Asperger disorder, pervasive developmental disorder and autism spectrum disorder. Previous studies have shown the average age of diagnosis is decreasing, which leads to an increase in total prevalence at any one point in time.
"That may be true, but I'm hearing of more children being diagnosed with autism," says Miller, who is worried about a connection between autism and routine vaccinations. "For instance, I approved a Hepatitis B vaccine on the day my new son was born. I can only cross my fingers and hope and pray I made the right decision."
Miller's pediatrician, Dr. Lisa Gold of North Point Pediatrics in Crown Point, Ind., says environmental factors, coupled with genetic predisposition, play a major role in the higher numbers of autism cases. However, there is "simply not an association between autism and vaccines," according to numerous studies, she says.
"But it doesn't stop new parents from being more worried and asking more questions about the development of their child," says Gold, who hands out questionnaires to parents to keep track of such developmental markers.
McDonough, whose 15-year-old son is among those on the autism spectrum, has heard critics claim that better diagnostic testing is the key to the higher number projections. In other words, these kids were always in our society but they weren't labeled as autistic.
She disagrees. "If that's the case, where are all the autistic people in their 40s or 50s? Statistically then, there would be many more in this country. But they don't exist."
Jerry Davich is a freelance writer and father of two living in the Chicago area.
See more of Jerry's stories here.