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U.S. Autism Diagnoses Trending Upward: CDC

March 24, 2023 -- The upward trend of autism diagnoses in children continues, with 1 in 36 U.S. 8-year-olds identified as having the disorder in 2020, according to newly released CDC data.

That’s up from a rate of 1 in 44 among 8-year-olds in 2018, and up from 1 in 88 in 2008. 

The data comes from a snapshot of 11 American communities and apply to diagnoses of autism spectrum disorder, which is characterized by developmental delays as well as by behavior, communication, interaction, and learning styles that differ from most people. The term “spectrum” refers to the wide range of symptoms.

Often a lifetime disorder, autism begins before the age of 3, and sometimes symptoms are evident before the age of 12 months. 

Overall, 2.8% of 8-year-old children in the study had an autism diagnosis in 2020. Researchers and outside experts said the increase may stem from increased awareness and increased screening.

“I have a feeling that this is just more discovery,” UCLA psychiatry professor Catherine Lord, PhD, told The New York Times. She was not involved in the research. 

“The question is what’s happening next to these kids, and are they getting services?” she said.

This latest report from the CDC shows that autism continues to disproportionately affect boys, who were almost four times more likely to have autism than girls. For the first time, though, the rate of autism among girls was more than 1% (more than 1 in 100 girls).

Also for the first time, children who are Asian, Black, or Hispanic were more likely to be identified as having autism, compared to children who are white.

“These shifts may reflect improved screening, awareness, and access to services among historically underserved groups,” the CDC explained in a news release.

The CDC also reported that evaluations of 4-year-olds for autism had declined during the pandemic.

“Disruptions due to the pandemic in the timely evaluation of children and delays in connecting children to the services and support they need could have long-lasting effects,” Karen Remley, MD, MPH, director of the CDC's National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities, said in a statement. 

The advocacy group Autism Speaks reacted to the CDC report by suggesting that pandemic impacts may have limited data collection and therefore the report may underrepresent the true prevalence of autism.  

The causes of autism remain unclear. Some people with autism may have a genetic condition. The leading theory is that “there are multiple causes of [autism spectrum disorder] that act together to change the most common ways people develop,” according to the CDC.

While the disorder is often diagnosed when children are young, the challenges that the disorder presents become more apparent as development continues.

“As children with ASD become adolescents and young adults, they may have difficulties developing and maintaining friendships, communicating with peers and adults, or understanding what behaviors are expected in school or on the job,” the CDC explains. “They may come to the attention of healthcare providers because they also have conditions such as anxiety, depression, or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, which occur more often in people with ASD than in people without ASD.”

Show Sources


The New York Times: “Autism Prevalence Rises Again, Study Finds.”

CDC: “Prevalence and Characteristics of Autism Spectrum Disorder Among Children Aged 8 Years — Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network, 11 Sites, United States, 2020,” “Autism Prevalence Higher, According to Data from 11 ADDM Communities,” “Prevalence of Autism Spectrum Disorders — Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network, 14 Sites, United States, 2008,” “What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?”

Autism Speaks: “Autism Speaks Pledges to Make World of Difference as Autism Prevalence Rises to 2.7% of Children in U.S.”

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