Are Autism Rates Rising?

autism statsThis month, we’re highlighting the fact that April is Autism Awareness month. Here at Beaumont’s Center for Human Development, we focus on diagnostic assessment, and our HOPE Center provides treatment services. Although we are not part of the group of scientists researching the potential causes of autism, we follow the literature carefully so we will know the latest findings. To that end, we’ll discuss some recent research each week this month.

You may have seen news coverage recently regarding the newest CDC survey results that were released stating that autism prevalence may have risen from 1:88 to 1:50. It can become confusing. What’s the “real” number? What is making the numbers rise or fall? Whenever a new survey comes out, it’s important to know what goes into the data. We want to compare apples to apples, so to speak. Comparing the 1:88 number to the 1:50 number is more like comparing apples to oranges.

  1. Type of Survey. The previous survey that found 1:88 children had been diagnosed with autism was a different type of CDC survey, that asked parents to provide information and then double checked responses against medical records. That gives us a very solid idea of what prevalence is, and if other surveys find similar numbers, we have even more confidence. The newest survey, finding 1:50 children had autism was based upon parent telephone survey alone. This means that there was no independent verification of the answers parents gave. These responses may have been quite accurate, but we don’t know that until we verify with some other type of survey or medical information.
  2. Age of Target Child. The 1:88 data referred only to children who were 8 years old at the time of the survey. The 1:50 data referred to children aged 6-17 years at the time of the survey. So we are looking at a broader age range in the newer survey.

However, there are some indicators that despite the differences in how the data were collected, the autism diagnosis rates may have actually risen. This same type of survey (parent report only), when last conducted in 2007, found about 1:86 children had been diagnosed with autism. That’s very similar to the 1:88 found in the other CDC survey based on 2008 data, which was verified through medical records.

The authors of the latest survey note that the increase was found mainly for boys (girls’ autism rates did not change significantly) and for older children, who were diagnosed after 2008. So those later diagnoses would not have been captured in the earlier data, but those children did actually have autism. When children are diagnosed at later ages, it’s almost always the case that they are more mildly affected by their autism. More severely affected children are typically diagnosed at a young age.

Taken together, these data suggest that autism rates may truly be on the rise, again. I don’t know about you, but I was already appalled at the 1:88 number! This is a public health crisis, and we need to find out what’s causing this disorder. We know that parents, medical professionals, and educators are all more aware of the signs of autism. We know that many communities now have better access to diagnosis and treatment services. Undoubtedly, that explains some of the increase we’ve seen over the last few decades. Nonetheless, these numbers are higher than just a few years ago, when these factors should not have been dramatically different.

It’s heartbreaking and frustrating to those of us touched by autism to see these numbers increasing, and we are hopeful each day that there will be a breakthrough to stop the rising tide of autism diagnoses. We love working with our children and their families, and they are all heroes to us, but we wish that they didn’t have to struggle with all the challenges autism brings.

Stay tuned for more autism news, and help spread autism awareness this month, and throughout the year! The more you know, the more you can help.

—Lori J. Warner, Ph.D., LP, BCBA-D, Director, HOPE Center

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