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U.S. Autism Estimates Rise by 30 Percent for Kids

Researchers say increase could be due to better diagnosis of the developmental disorder

WebMD News from HealthDay

By Dennis Thompson

HealthDay Reporter

THURSDAY, March 27, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- One in 68 American children is now diagnosed with autism or a related disorder, federal health officials reported Thursday.

That's a 30 percent increase from just two years ago when the estimate was one in 88 children, according to a new report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"The number of children identified with autism continues to rise," said Coleen Boyle, director of the CDC's National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities.

The continuing increase in the percentage of kids diagnosed with autism could be due to better detection of the developmental disorder, Boyle said, but also might reflect an actual increase in autism.

"It could be a combination of better recognition and increased prevalence," she said. "Our system tells us what's going on. It only gives us clues about the why."

The new statistics also continue to show that autism spectrum disorder is five times more common among boys than girls. And they reflect an increase in the percentage of children being diagnosed with high-functioning autism, the CDC said.

People with an autism spectrum disorder display impaired social and communication skills. Symptoms, which can range from mild to severe, usually become apparent in the first three years of life. The developmental disorder is linked to abnormal biology and chemistry in the brain, according to the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

The CDC bases its estimates on reports from 11 communities that participate in its Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network. The newest estimate is based on data from 2010.

Estimates of autism among 8-year-olds have more than doubled since the CDC network's first report in 2007, which calculated that about 1 in 150 children had the disorder based on 2002 data.

The continuing rise of autism highlights the need for more funding for research into the causes of autism and for support and treatment of kids diagnosed with the disorder, said Michael Rosanoff, associate director of research and scientific review at Autism Speaks.

"We really need to double down on our research into the environmental factors that work in some complex way with a child's genetics to increase the risk of autism," he said.

There also needs to be continued emphasis on earlier diagnosis of autism, added Dr. Melissa Nishawala, an assistant professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the NYU School of Medicine and medical director of the Autism Spectrum Disorders Clinical and Research Program.

The new CDC study reports that most children are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder after age 4, even though autism can be diagnosed as early as age 2.

"We need to push the frontier of diagnosis down to the earliest ages we can," Nishawala said. "The earlier we intervene, the more we can do to help nudge those brain pathways closer and closer to normal."

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