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
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
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
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
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.
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