Rates are on the rise.
Autism is 10 times more common today than it was in the 1980s, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. An estimated 1 in 68 children in this country have autism to some degree. In California, the number of kids with autism in the state’s social-services program nearly doubled between 1998 and 2002, surpassing cases of childhood cancer, juvenile diabetes, and Down syndrome. Nationwide, autism strikes three to four times more boys than girls; the rates are about the same for kids of all races.
Although there seems to be an autism epidemic, most experts attribute the increasing prevalence to improved diagnosis and reporting. The definition of autism has been expanded in the past decade to include a wider spectrum of problems with communication and social interaction. “Ten years ago, many children with mild autism were simply not diagnosed,” says Adrian Sandler, M.D., a developmental-behavioral pediatrician at Mission Children’s Hospital, in Asheville, North Carolina, and chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ committee on children with disabilities. Plus, there are more state and federal programs for autistic kids, giving doctors an incentive to diagnose and refer them. However, there may be additional, unknown reasons for the spike in autism rates, and researchers are investigating everything from environmental toxins to viruses to food allergies.
Kids are getting diagnosed sooner.
There’s no laboratory or medical test for detecting autism, so doctors must rely on behavioral signs. In the past, many were reluctant to label a child as autistic until symptoms became obvious. “The average age for diagnosis had been about 3 1/2, with many children diagnosed much later,” says Amy Wetherby, Ph.D., director of the Center for Autism and Related Disabilities at Florida State University, in Tallahassee. But that’s changing.
One reason is that pediatricians are becoming more aware of autism. At the same time, autism specialists are better at identifying early telltale signs such as a lack of babbling or pointing. “Most children with autism will show some signs of developmental disruption by their first birthday,” says Rebecca Landa, Ph.D., an autism researcher at Baltimore’s Kennedy Krieger Institute.
And while no one is yet diagnosing autism in children that young, doctors can now make a reliable assessment by 24 months – when a child’s brain is still rapidly developing. “If we can intervene while a child’s brain is very immature, it will be much easier to help change her behavior,” Dr. Wetherby says.