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Autism cases in U.S. jump to 1 in 45: Who gets the diagnosis, in 8 simple charts

Five-year-old Alexander Prentice, of Burton, Mich., smiles as he searches for items at the bottom of a sand bin at Genesee Health System's new Children's Autism Center in 2014. (AP Photo/The Flint Journal, Jake May )

The number of autism cases in the United States appeared to jump dramatically in 2014 according to new estimates released Friday, but researchers said that changes in the format of the questionnaire likely affected the numbers.

The report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and National Center for Health Statistics shows that the prevalence of autism in children ages 3 to 17 went up about 80 percent from 2011-2013 to 2014. Instead of 1 in 80 (or 1.25 percent) children having autism -- a number that has alarmed public health officials in recent years and strained state and school system resources -- researchers now estimate that the prevalence is now 1 in 45 (or 2.24 percent).

Lead author Benjamin Zablotsky,  an epidemiologist at the NCHS, and his colleagues said that in previous years some parents of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder likely reported it as a developmental disability instead of or in addition to autism because it was listed first. The new questionnaire flips the two categories, which researchers said made the autism estimates more similar to ones from other sources.

As might be expected from this change, the prevalence of other developmental disabilities declined significantly from 4.84 percent based on 2011-2013 data to 3.57 percent in 2014.

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The prevalence of intellectual disability did not significantly change and remains at 1.1 percent and the prevalence of any three of the conditions was constant across all surveys.

The high rates of autism among American children has been the source of much debate in recent years, with some experts attributing it to overdiagnosis and others expressing concern about possible environmental factors affecting children's brain development.

“It’s not the year to year numbers that concern us. It’s the decade to decade. The fact that we have 1 in 45 children with a very serious neurological condition is a catastrophe by any measure,” said Jill Escher, president of the Autism Society of San Francisco.

Michael Rosanoff, an epidemiologist who is the director for public health research for Autism Speaks, an advocacy group, said that the new number “is likely a more accurate representation of autism prevalence in the United States" than the 1 in 68 number.

"This means that 2 percent of children in the U.S. are living with autism," Rosanoff said in a statement."The earlier they have access to care, services and treatment, the more likely they are to progress."

The study also found that children diagnosed with autism had high rates of co-occurring conditions. Learning disabilities were the most common with 62.6 percent of children with autism also having LDs. Next highest was attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder or ADHD with 42.8 percent of those with autism also having ADHD.

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About 14 percent of those diagnosed need help with personal care, 9.1 percent reported they have trouble hearing and 7.3 percent that they have trouble seeing.

Nearly 60 percent received special education or early intervention services.

Below is a look at who is being diagnosed with autism.

As in previous years, most of the children being diagnosed with autism are male, non-Hispanic white, living in large metropolitan areas, with two parents and with at least one parent with more than a high school education.

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Many more boys are being diagnosed with autism than girls but the gap is narrowing somewhat. In 2011-2013 81.7 percent of all children diagnosed were male while 18.3 were female. In 2014, it was 75 percent male, 25 percent female.

Most of the children being diagnosed with autism were identified by their parents as non-Hispanic white.

More than two-thirds of children being diagnosed lived with two parents.

Children being diagnosed represented a wide range of incomes.

More than half of children diagnosed live in large metropolitan statistical areas that include places like New York, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.

The children being diagnosed are spread out all over the country.

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In this video from Kaiser Health News, mother Diane Brown explains what it's like to raise two autistic sons in their teen years. (Video: Kaiser Health News)