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Children with the most extreme form of autism are withdrawn, speak little, avoid eye contact and engage in repetitive actions.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.”