Health officials estimate that autism rates have risen more than 30 percent in the past two years among children in the United States.
Much of the increase is believed to be from a cultural and medical shift, with doctors diagnosing autism more frequently, especially in children with milder problems.
The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) released the latest estimate Thursday. The Atlanta-based agency said its calculation means autism affects roughly 1.2 million Americans under 21. Two years ago, the CDC put the estimate at 1 in 88 children, or about 1 million.
We can’t dismiss the numbers. But we can’t interpret it to mean more people are getting the disorder,” said Marisela Huerta, a psychologist at the New York-Presbyterian Center for Autism and the Developing Brain in suburban White Plains, N.Y.
The report focused on 8-year-olds because most autism is diagnosed by that age. The researchers checked health and school records to see which children met the criteria for autism, even if they hadn’t been formally diagnosed. Then, the researchers calculated how common autism was in each place and overall.
Experts aren’t surprised by the growing numbers, and some say all it reflects is that doctors, teachers and parents are increasingly likely to say a child with learning and behavior problems is autistic. Some CDC experts say screening and diagnosis are clearly major drivers, but that they can’t rule out some actual increase as well.
For decades, autism meant kids with severe language, intellectual and social impairments and unusual, repetitious behaviors. But the definition has gradually expanded and now includes milder, related conditions.
One sign of that: In the latest study, almost half of autistic kids had average or above average IQs. That’s up from a third a decade ago and can be taken as an indication that the autism label is more commonly given to higher-functioning children, CDC officials acknowledged.
One change CDC officials had hoped to see, but didn’t, was a drop in the age of diagnosis. Experts say a diagnosis can now be made at age 2 or even earlier. But the new report said the majority of children continue to be diagnosed after they turn 4.
The American Academy of Pediatrics issued a statement Thursday, saying the nation needs to step up screening for the condition and research into autism’s causes.
Studies Show Autism Rates Have Risen More Than 30 Percent Among US Children.
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