Autism rates up; im­proved screen­ing and di­ag­no­sis cited

Re­port promps call for more re­search fund­ing

The Washington Times Daily - - Nation - BY MIKE STO­BBE

AT­LANTA | Autism cases are on the rise again, largely due to wider screen­ing and bet­ter di­ag­no­sis, fed­eral health of­fi­cials said Thurs­day.

The rate of U.S. cases of autism and re­lated dis­or­ders rose to about 1 in 88 chil­dren. The pre­vi­ous es­ti­mate was 1 in 110.

The new fig­ure is from the lat­est in a se­ries of stud­ies that have been steadily in­creas­ing the gov­ern­ment’s autism es­ti­mate. This new num­ber means autism is nearly twice as com­mon as of­fi­cials said it was only five years ago, and likely af­fects roughly 1 mil­lion U.S. chil­dren and teens.

Health of­fi­cials at­tribute the in­crease largely to bet­ter recog­ni­tion of cases, through wide screen­ing and bet­ter di­ag­no­sis. But the search for the cause of autism is re­ally only be­gin­ning, and of­fi­cials ac­knowl­edge that other fac­tors may be help­ing to drive up the num­bers.

“We’re not quite sure the rea­sons for the in­crease,” said Coleen Boyle of the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Preven­tion.

Autism is di­ag­nosed by mak­ing judg­ments about a child’s be­hav­ior; there are no blood or bi­o­logic tests. For decades, the di­ag­no­sis was given only to chil­dren with se­vere lan­guage and so­cial im­pair­ments and un­usual, rep­e­ti­tious be­hav­iors.

The def­i­ni­tion of autism has grad­u­ally ex­panded, and “autism” is now short­hand for a group of milder, re­lated con­di­tions, in­clud­ing Asperger’s syn­drome. Mean­while, there’s been an ex­plo­sion in autism-re­lated treat­ment and ser­vices for chil­dren.

As in the past, ad­vo­cacy groups seized on the new num­bers as fur­ther ev­i­dence that autism re­search and ser­vices should get greater em­pha­sis. The new fig­ures in­di­cate “a public health emer­gency that de­mands im­me­di­ate at­ten­tion,” said Geral­dine Daw­son, chief sci­ence of­fi­cer for the ad­vo­cacy group Autism Speaks.

The CDC study re­leased Thurs­day is con­sid­ered the most com­pre­hen­sive U.S. in­ves­ti­ga­tion of autism preva­lence to date. Re­searchers gath­ered data from ar­eas in 14 states — Alabama, Ari­zona, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Ge­or­gia, Mary­land, Mis­souri, New Jer­sey, North Carolina, Penn­syl­va­nia, South Carolina, Utah and Wis­con­sin.

They looked specif­i­cally at 8-year-old chil­dren be­cause most autism is di­ag­nosed by that age. They 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.

An ear­lier re­port based on 2002 find­ings es­ti­mated that about 1 in 150 chil­dren that age had autism or a re­lated dis­or­der such as Asperger’s. Af­ter see­ing 2006 data, the fig­ure was re­vised to about 1 in 110. The es­ti­mate re­leased Thurs­day, based on 2008 data, is 1 in 88.

The study also found that autism dis­or­ders were al­most five times more com­mon in boys and that an in­creas­ingly large pro­por­tion of chil­dren with autism have IQS of 85 or higher — a find­ing that con­tra­dicts a past as­sump­tion that most autis­tic kids had IQS of 70 or lower.

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