Recent CDC data on autism spectrum disorders in the US indicated that as many as one in 88 children may fall on the spectrum.
In a press conference held earlier this week, Thomas Frieden, MD, MPH, director of the CDC, reviewed some of the findings, stressing early intervention as a critical point. “More children being diagnosed at earlier ages,” he said. “A growing number are diagnosed at age 3, but most in this study were diagnosed after age 4 years.”
Frieden also highlighted gender discrepancies. “One in 54 boys are identified with autism spectrum disorders, compared with one in 252 girls,” he said. “Doctors are getting better at diagnosing and communities are getting better at providing services, but these families still need help.”
More data will lead to more targeted services, according to Frieden. “Many children not receiving services early or consistently enough,” he said. “On a national scale, CDC work is helping to guide critical research.”
The Department of Health and Human Services’ Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee is supporting states in advocacy efforts. The committee is strengthening systems through Medicaid and Medicare programs. “We are also working with the Departments of Education and Labor,” Frieden said.
“Autism is a complex condition, and many unanswered questions remain,” he added. “We’re learning more every day but still have a great deal to learn.”
Focus on surveillance
Coleen Boyle, PhD, MSHyg, director of the National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities at CDC, echoed many of Frieden’s points. “We saw a 23% increase in diagnoses from the last report of this kind,” she said. “People want answers and so do we.”
Boyle noted that the CDC is committed to tracking autism and its causes. “Tracking gives us more than just a number,” she said. “It provides a complete picture of autism.”
The rate and characteristics of autism spectrum disorders vary across the country, according to Boyle. She said that one in 210 children are identified in Alabama, while one in 47 are identified in Utah.
Boyle also stressed the importance of identifying children with autism as early as possible. “To understand more, we need accelerated research into risk factors and causes,” she said. “We are starting to see how advanced age and premature birth increase risk. Ultimately we need to better understand why one child is more likely than another to have autism.”
The current study is the largest in the US that is aimed at identifying risk factors. However, despite the comprehensive nature of the data and a general increase in awareness, challenges remain. “Our tracking data indicate that children are not being diagnosed as early as they could be,” Boyle said. “We are seeing parents who were concerned long before their child was diagnosed. We are working on changing that. One of the keys is more screening.”
Boyle said that parents should not be afraid to discuss their concerns with teachers and clinicians, and to act quickly. “You don’t need a diagnosis to get services,” she said. “It’s never too late.”
Susan Hyman, MD, chairperson of the Autism Subcommittee of the American Academy of Pediatrics, noted that the AAP believes in early and continuous screening and surveillance.
“All children should be screened at 18 and 24 months, and we encourage a 30-month screen,” she said.
She added that the need for services is ongoing. “As these kids become adults, services need to be provided and resources need to be allocated,” Hayman said. She also noted that diagnoses among black and Hispanic children have increased from previous studies.
“Autism spectrum disorders need to be a priority area for all of us,” she said.
For the full data set, please visit the CDC website.
-by Rob Volansky