The Autism Blues

Have you seen the blue glow on the Mackinac Bridge or the Empire State Building? Or sprinkled up and down the streets in your neighborhood this month? If so, that’s “Light it up Blue”, an Autism Speaks initiative to help spread awareness of this devastating neurodevelopmental disorder.

Sadly, it won’t take long before pretty much everyone is aware of autism. On March 29, 2012 the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) released the findings of an autism prevalence study conducted in 2008. Although the methodology isn’t perfect – it never is – the important point is that there was a sharp increase in prevalence numbers from the last time the CDC completed the same kind of survey in 2006. Last time around, the numbers of 8-year-olds who were diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder were 1 in 110, with 1 in 70 boys being diagnosed.

Now, the numbers are 1 in 88. If you look only at boys, it’s 1 in 54. Girls were much less likely to be diagnosed (1 in 252). I don’t know about you, but that scares me. Now the media are using the term “epidemic” and “public health crisis”, but the fact is, it’s been a problem for some time.

No one is sure why the rates are rising. You can ask 10 different people and get 10 different answers. Because we diagnose and treat autism at the Center for Human Development, we are often asked for our opinions. I honestly tell families that I really don’t know what’s causing the rise in diagnoses. I believe it is likely due to many reasons.

One factor is that there is more awareness about autism, and families have a better understanding that this may be more than a “boys are late to talk” scenario. Pediatricians and family physicians are becoming better at following the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommended screenings at earlier ages. Professionals are better able to diagnose autism spectrum disorders when children are younger.

However, there are many other factors that may contribute to the development of autism that are yet to be fully understood. For example, a study was released today finding that maternal obesity and Type II diabetes are correlated with higher autism rates in their children. Research to unravel all the interconnected factors is difficult to conduct, but is needed if we are to put a stop to this steep rise in prevalence.

Another issue: in the next year or so, the definition of what constitutes “autism” is expected to change somewhat. Some diagnoses that were formerly separate from “autistic disorder” will no longer be options. So those children will be diagnosed with “autism” or perhaps with something else. Regardless of the exact label, we know that more and more children are being affected with this disorder. Whether “mild” or “severe”, autism wreaks havoc on families.

We know we have effective treatment options for families such as our programs at the HOPE Center but we also want to help families find out the causes of autism. Stay tuned for more posts on this important topic throughout the month! You can also Like our Facebook page to keep up to date with the latest information on autism in Michigan.

— Lori J. Warner, Ph.D., LP, BCBA-D, Director, HOPE Center, Beaumont Children’s Hospital

2 Responses to “The Autism Blues”

  1. 1 Anonymous April 16, 2012 at 10:20 am

    Could you discuss any possible link to vaccinations? This topic just keeps coming up again and again.

  2. 2 Dr. Lori Warner April 16, 2012 at 1:09 pm

    Thanks for your comment. I’m not an expert on that topic, but the potential links among many different environmental factors are a much-discussed topic. I have noted in the post that more and more research is looking at possible environmental as well as genetic links to autism, but the scope of this post is really awareness, current prevalence and treatment.

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