One in 68 U.S. children have been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, up from 1 in 88 just two years ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced this week. Boys still have it worse, with 1 in 42 diagnosed with the disorder.
“It’s not surprising. I think the numbers reflect the increased awareness of professionals and the public at large in identifying kids at risk of autism and, if not autism, some other developmental disability,” says Dr. Alan Rosenblatt, a specialist in neurodevelopmental pediatrics who advocates for children with special needs at the local, state and national levels.
Rosenblatt, who is a member of Chicago Special Parent’s Advisory Board and the author of Autism Spectrum Disorders: What Every Parent Needs to Know, says continued research is still needed to understand all of the factors that cause autism.
“As we are able to increasingly understand the underpinnings of what autism is, we’ll be better able to come up with specific preventions and the real hope is that there may someday be more specific biological treatments for specific types of autism,” he says.
He says he does expect the rate of increase to plateau, which will then represent the true prevalence of autism. “I think much of what we have seen in last few decade is resulting from the expanded definition of autism,” he says.
The CDC report also shows that the additional number of cases are in the higher functioning kids. Now nearly half of the kids on the spectrum have an IQ of 85 or higher where a decade ago, they made up only 10 percent of the cases.
For its part, the American Academy of Pediatrics continues to advocate for early screening, early diagnosis and timely referral for effective intervention.
“The AAP is working to help make pediatric practices more equipped to provide ongoing care to the many children with autism,” says Dr. James Perrin, MD, FAAP, president of the AAP, in a news release. “These rising rates certainly underscore the need to improve our understanding of the causes of autism and to work on prevention.”
The AAP also is urging Congress to reauthorize the Combatting Autism Act, which it says has led to significant advances in early intervention, behavioral treatments and understanding of the causes of autism.
Rosenblatt says studies are now being done on neurofibromatosis and Fragile X syndrome, two known conditions that can cause autism.
“It is exciting to know that at least in animal models the specific biologic treatments have resulted in significant improvement. We’re still awaiting the trials of these specific interventions in humans,” he says.
More information for pediatricians and families can be found at aap.org/autism.