More children than ever are being diagnosed with some sort of autism, according to a new report released Wednesday.
A full two percent of U.S. schoolkids – or about a million children – have been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), according to the National Health Statistics report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The increase is a significant one – up from 1.16 perecent in 2007 – but researchers and other experts stress it doesn’t necessarily mean more children are developing autism. Rather we're getting better at diagnosing children with the disorder.
"The numbers speak for themselves," Lauren Underwood, author and medical research scientist, tells Parenting.com. "It's a warning sign that we need to recognize that this population is out there and the systems that are out there -- the health care system, the education system -- need to be adjusted so their needs can be met."
This new estimate by the CDC places the prevalence rate at one in 50, which is significantly higher than last year's estimate that one in 88 US kids had an ASD. For this study, as part of an independent national telephone survey of households with children, parents were asked if any of their children had or had been diagnosed with autism.
Still, some experts cautioned that autism rates may be even higher than the new estimate.
"We may be missing those milder cases," Michael Rosanoff, associate director of public health, research and scientific review at Autism Speaks tells Parenting.com.
"From research we've seen elsewhere around the world, including an Autism Speaks-funded survey in Korea that found 1 in 38 children had autism, that number could be as high as 2.64 percent of kids."
Plus: The Facts about Autism
There is no one type of autism. Rather, it is set of complex neurodevelopment disorders that occur along a wide ranging spectrum of conditions – some of which were not even recognized until recently.
Autsim can range from the very mild social awkwardness seen in some cases of Asperger’s syndrome, to severe and debilitating symptoms that prevent children from interacting in a normal way, prevent learning and often require medication.
The biggest increase was seen in boys aged 14–17. In 2011–2012, school-aged boys were more than four times as likely as school-aged girls to be on the spectrum, according to the report. Most of the new cases were classified as mild.
"Regardless of what you want to attribute the increase to, the fact of the matter is that the numbers are there. There are that many children being diagnosed now," says Underwood, herself the mother of a child on the spectrum.
"It's distressing. What do we do? How do we save our children?"
Because autism is usually diagnosed in the toddler years, researchers conclude that most of the increase is due to new recognition of autism in children who had it, but whose parents or doctors hadn’t realized it.
The CDC recommends that diagnosis of an ASD be based on comprehensive behavioral evaluations, which can make diagnostic assessment complex and time-consuming. Our understanding of ASD is evolving, albeit slowly. In years past, some children with autism were classified as mentally retarded, while others struggled quietly with no idea they could benefit from therapy.
For some the new report, while alarming, represents an opportunity.
"We need an adequately scaled response," says Rosanoff. "We're getting better at identifying it. But we need help at the federal level to help us better understand what's causing autism, the increased prevalence rate, and we need help treating it. And that comes down to reasearch dollars, which are limited and not adequately scaled to match the autism challenge."