U.S. autism rate surges, CDC reports

The number of U.S. children with autism has surged to one in 68, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Thursday, a 30 percent increase since the agency estimated just two years ago that one child in 88 suffered from the disorder.

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The new estimate, based on a review of records in 2010 for eight year olds in 11 states, also showed a marked increase in the number of children with higher IQs who fall somewhere on the autism spectrum, and a wide range of results depending on where a child lives. Only one child in 175 was diagnosed with autism in Alabama, while one in 45 was found to have the disorder in New Jersey.

The information was reported in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

In a telephone news conference, Coleen Boyle director of the CDC’s National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities, said the growing numbers could reflect both better identification of children with autism spectrum disorders and a growing number of intelligent children with autism.

“It could be that doctors are getting better at identifying these children, there could be a growing number of children with high intelligence [who are autistic], or it could be both,” she said.

As in previous reports, the diagnosis is much more common in boys (one in 42) than girls (one in 189), and much more frequently found in whites than blacks or Hispanics. Boyle said the racial disparity is most likely due to better reporting of the disorder in whites.

Children with the most extreme form of autism are withdrawn, speak little, avoid eye contact and engage in repetitive actions. Milder forms, such as Asperger’s syndrome, are now considered to fall along the autism spectrum. In the past, children with Asperger’s, for example, might have been considered peculiar and abnormal but not suffering from a disorder.

The CDC said it would be announcing a new initiative later Thursday to encourage parents to have young children screened for autism in their early years, and given the support they need. Officials said most children are not diagnosed until they are at least four years old, though identification is possible as early as two years old. Any parent who has concerns about how a child  plays, learns, speaks, acts or moves should seek an assessment, officials said.

Autism treatment requires time and patience. Medical expenses for children with autism are six times as high as those for children without the disorder. Behavioral therapy, often delivered one-on-one, can cost as much as $60,000 per year.

Liz Feld, president of the advocacy group Autism Speaks, said in a statement that the disorder is “a pressing public health crisis that must be prioritized at the national level. We need a comprehensive strategy that includes the research community, policymakers, educators, and caregivers coming together to address our community’s needs across the lifespan.”

Lenny Bernstein writes the To Your Health blog. He started as an editor on the Post’s National Desk in 2000 and has worked in Metro and Sports.
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Lenny Bernstein | March 26