The latest autism prevalence rates were published at the end of last year, and the numbers were shocking. One in every 110 kids -- and 1 in every 70 boys -- in the U.S. is living with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), the report showed. That's up from 1 in 150 -- and 1 in 94 boys -- only two years ago. But there is plenty of hopeful news, too:
We're getting closer to understanding the possible causes. Groundbreaking research last year pinpointed what scientists are calling autism "susceptibility" genes, which regulate how the brain develops and how connections between cells are made. "But you can have those genes and not develop the disorder," says Geraldine Dawson, Ph.D., the chief science officer at the advocacy organization Autism Speaks. The genes could be "influenced," she says, by prenatal and environmental factors such as infections, medications, birth complications, and exposure to certain toxins. The hope is that, someday, we can identify children with genetic susceptibility and begin intervention much sooner.
Autism is being detected earlier than ever. Researchers from the Yale Child Study Center have made important discoveries about the ways in which autistic children interact, paying more attention to nonsocial physical cues than social ones (for example, staring at their parents' mouths rather than their eyes when they speak). The scientists believe that this eye-tracking data could be used in the first few days of life to identify kids who may be vulnerable to ASD. At your child's 18- and 24-month checkups, your pediatrician should screen for autism spectrum disorders. Even before that, though, both you and she should be on the lookout for red flags, which include little eye contact; no babbling, pointing, or other communicative gestures by 12 months; no single words by 16 months; and loss of language or social skills at any age.
New treatments are changing lives. A recent study from the University of Washington in Seattle detailed one of the biggest treatment breakthroughs in recent years: the Early Start Denver Model (ESDM) intervention, a form of applied behavior therapy that, Dawson says, is appropriate for infants as young as 12 months. Amazingly, it "could prevent a full-blown syndrome from developing," she adds. How? ESDM strategies capitalize on a child's everyday play to teach communication and learning skills. Kids in the study who got 20 hours of therapy a week for two years had an 18-point improvement in IQ and language gains, and many of them even had their diagnosis changed, from autism to milder conditions. If your child has been diagnosed, ask your physician about early intervention using applied behavior analysis and ESDM. Urge your state to end autism insurance discrimination at Autismvotes.org.