The Short of It
According to a new survey, about 1 in 45 children has an autism spectrum disorder. But researchers say the increase is probably due to the new methods being used to ask questions.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention's National Health Interview Survey found an uptick in the number of children with autism in 2014. It reports that 1 in 45 children, ages 3 to 17, has an ASD; by contrast, the annual survey found rates of 1 in 80 during the years 2011 through 2013.
According to the latest report, the numbers may reflect a more accurate picture of ASDs. Researchers caution, however, that the change is probably due to the new methods being used to survey parents.
"The question wording was expanded to include more specific details on what constituted an autism spectrum disorder," the report says.
More than 11,000 families were surveyed about one child in their household between ages 3 and 17 in 2014. The parents were asked if a health professional ever told them that their child had autism, Asperger's disorder, pervasive developmental disorder or autism spectrum disorder. A little more than 2 percent of parents answered, "yes."
"There have been some significant changes in the way that they are asking the questions," said psychologist and autism researcher Kate Walton. "What we call an autism spectrum disorder now is a much wider group of symptoms than what we called autism in the past, so I think that captures a larger number of children that might have received other diagnoses in the past."
Clearly, the way something is presented can have an effect on results.
"Probably the most important finding of this paper, which is hardly new, is that how one asks a question matters," said Dr. Glen Elliott, chief psychiatrist and medical director of Children's Health Council in Palo Alto, Calif.
So while it isn't clear if the number of autism spectrum disorders are actually increasing, Elliott says that changing the definition has definitely had some impact. The good news, he says, is there can be significant benefits to being diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, because kids can receive "a variety of special accommodations and resources in school and through regional centers that are simply not available to individuals with diagnoses such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, depression or anxiety."