School-aged children today are 72 percent more likely to receive a diagnosis of autism, Asperger Syndrome or a related neurodevelopmental disorder, than in 2007. That’s the findings from a phone survey of parents (pdf) released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA).
Since my own son Charlie was diagnosed with autism in July of 1997, the autism rate has gone up, up and up. If 1 in 50 kids today are on the autism spectrum, that means it’s almost guaranteed there’s an autistic child in your child’s classroom (or rather, may mean that child is your child).
Here’s a timeline of how the autism rate has increased in the past several decades.
3 in 10,000. From the time that it was first named as a condition by child psychiatrist Leo Kanner in 1943 and through the 1980s, autism was considered rare, as anthropologist Roy Richard Grinker writes in his 2007 book “Unstrange Minds: Remapping the World of Autism.”
30 in 10,000 (about 1 in 300). Over the course of the 1990s, autism was diagnosed more frequently in the U.S. and in the U.K.
1 in 166. A report from the CDC (pdf) in the early 2000s found that autism was bring increasingly diagnosed, in “as many as 1 in 166″ children. These new numbers were based on information from the CDC’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network (ADDM), which uses data from evaluation records of children from sources such as pediatric health clinics to specialized programs for children with developmental disabilities, but not from “professional or family reporting of an existing ASD diagnosis or classification.”
1 in 50. The just-released results of the CDC and the HRSA survey is based on parent reports. While the parents said that their children had significant social and other challenges, they were more likely to say the diagnosis was “mild” than had parents in an earlier phone survey.
The inevitable question is, why the increase?
Stephen J. Blumberg, the latest study’s lead author, says to the New York Times that “our findings suggest that the increase in prevalence is due to improved recognition of autism spectrum disorders as opposed to children with newly developed risks for them.” That is, by the researchers’ own admission, the latest increase in the numbers of autistic children is due in part to “soaring awareness of autism spectrum disorders among clinicians and schools, as well as parents.” Rather than some external factor causing more children to be autistic, far, far greater understanding about autism is contributing to a rise in diagnoses as clinicians, educators and parents recognize a child might not just “like to play alone” but could be on the autism spectrum.
The new study noted that most of the increase in autism diagnoses was due to previously undiagnosed cases of school children (aged 6 – 17 years old). Such children most likely did not present with the very obvious signs of developmental delay that Charlie — a non-talking, lining-up-toys, not-interacting toddler — did. There’s no biomarker for autism currently so the condition is diagnosed based on the observations of clinicians; a child with fewer severe symptoms than Charlie may have been ruled out as a candidate for autism, only to be clearly one after starting to go to school and her or his differences from peers being noted.
While clinicians once made distinctions between “milder” cases with diagnoses of “Asperger’s Syndrome” and “Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified” (PDD-NOS) vs. plain old “autism,” all of these are soon to be folded under one diagnosis of “autism spectrum disorder,” with differences of severity noted. Could this change in the technical language of diagnostic criteria lead to even more individuals receiving the diagnosis to the point that, as a 2011 study of children in South Korea found, the rate is 1 in 38? How low can the rate go?
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