1 in 88 children in the US are on the autism spectrum according to a new report from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC); the CDC report is available in PDF format. The previous figure from 2006 was in 1 in 110: Rates for children with an autism spectrum disorder have increased 23 percent from 2006 to 2008 and 78 percent as compared to a decade ago.
The prevalence rate differs in different parts of the US. While the overall estimated ASD prevalence rate is 11.3 per 1,000 (one in 88) children aged 8 years, the rate is much lower in Alabama (4.8 per 1,000). Utah has the highest estimated autism prevalence (21.2 per 1,000) and New Jersey where I live the second highest (20.5 per 1,000).
Gender, Race and Ethnicity and ASD Prevalence
Autism is more prevalent in boys than in girls and that CDC’s new report reflects this. Approximately one in 54 boys (18.4 per 1,000) and one in 252 girls (4 per 1,000) in the areas surveyed by the CDC were found to have an ASD diagnosis.
In addition, ASD prevalence estimates also vary widely by sex and by racial/ethnic group. The estimated prevalence among non-Hispanic white children (12.0 per 1,000) is much larger than among non-Hispanic black children (10.2 per 1,000) and Hispanic children (7.9 per 1,000). The ASD prevalence rate is the same for non-Hispanic white children, non-Hispanic black children, and Hispanic children only in New Jersey. Overall, the largest increases in ASD diagnoses are among black and Hispanic children.
Estimates for the ASD rate among Asian/Pacific Islander children ranged greatly, from 2.2 to 19.0 per 1,000; the CDC notes that “wide confidence intervals suggest that these findings should be interpreted with caution.”
Why the Increase?
The reason for such a significant increase in ASD prevalence remains uncertain. While many may be first inclined to think that there be some thing, such as an environmental agent, it is also necessary to keep in mind how much the DSM criteria for an autism spectrum diagnosis have changed (and are still changing) and how much more public understanding there is about autism today than thirteen years ago when my teenage son was diagnosed with autism. Educators, doctors and parents are much more able to detect what might be symptoms of autism in younger children, though the CDC report notes that the average age of diagnosis is 4 or 5 years old: More can be done to identify young children on the autism spectrum.
I’ve Seen My Son Go From Having a “Rare Disease” to a “Commonly Prevalent” One
As a mother who was told back in 1999 that her toddler had an “incredibly rare disease,” the increased public understanding has made life better for my son Charlie and our family. With more children with an ASD diagnosis, school districts have created more programs that teach autistic children in more appropriate ways and with specially-trained staff; researchers have undertaken studies to understand autism’s causes and develop medications to address neurological functioning. Charlie, who would probably have been institutionalized by now had he lived in a previous generation, is a lovable teenager who lives at home, rides his bikes for miles every day and loves his school, which teaches him essential vocational and life skills.
ASDs are lifelong diagnoses and, amid the cries for figuring out why so many more children now receive an ASD diagnosis, we need to keep in sight the urgent need for more programs and services for individuals of all ages and especially adults. The new CDC figures are still considerably lower than the 1 in 38 prevalence rate found by researchers in a study of school children in South Korea, an indication that the CDC’s figures for the autism rate could increase again. There are more individuals diagnosed with ASDs and, while seeking to understand why this is now the case, we need to do everything we can to provide them with supports and services, to help them achieve their full potential.
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Photo of the author's son in 1999, around the time when he was diagnosed with autism.