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Autism rise may be due to more diagnoses

  • The Dallas Morning News

NEW YORK — The government’s estimate of autism has risen again, to 1 in 68 U.S. children, a 30 percent increase in two years. But health officials say the new number may not mean autism is more common. 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. “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 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released the latest estimate Thursday. The Atlanta-based agency said its calculation means autism affects roughly1.2 million Americans under 21. The cause or causes of autism are still not known. Without any blood test or other medical tests for autism, diagnosis is not an exact science. It’s identified by making judgments about a child’s behavior. Thursday’s report is considered the most comprehensive on the frequency of autism. Researchers gathered data in 2010 from areas in 11 states: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Maryland, Missouri, New Jersey, North Carolina, Utah and Wisconsin. 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. The CDC started using this method in 2007. Last year, the CDC released results of a less reliable calculation — from a survey of parents — that suggested as many as 1 in 50 children have autism. 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.