Autism now affects 1 in 110 children; reasons unknown

It’s difficult to avoid talk of autism
these days. Cases seem to be much more common, news coverage has increased
dramatically in recent years, and if you’re like me, then you probably know at
least one person with the condition (in my case, a good friend’s daughter).

A new government study
now provides solid data suggesting that these are no mere anecdotes. Nearly 1
percent of children now have autism or an autism-related disorder—and no one
knows exactly why.

The study, conducted by the Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention
in 2006, confirms other work suggesting
that autism cases have increased significantly in recent years. More research
is needed to ferret out a precise explanation for the rise, according to the
study, but it’s possibly at least partly due to something recently introduced
into the environment.

The findings come from a review of health and education
records from across the U.S.; more than 300,000 8-year-olds—about 8 percent of U.S.
kids that age—were included.

Though exact numbers varied significantly among communities,
on average about 1 in every 110 children had an official psychiatric diagnosis
of an autism-spectrum disorder. Not all groups were affected equally, however.
Boys were four to five times as likely to have an autism diagnosis; the
condition affected 1 in every 70 8-year-old boys but only 1 in every 315 girls.

Less dire was the news about how well children with autism function.
According to the study, less than half suffer from some sort of intellectual
disability—far less than the three-quarters that previous studies had found.
Autism is also being diagnosed earlier on average, offering greater chances for
more potent early treatment, but “delays in identification persisted,” according
to the study.

Catherine Rice, the study’s lead author, said increased
awareness of the condition and better diagnosis seem to be only part of the
reason for the rise. “No single factor explains the changes identified in ASD
prevalence over the time period studied,” she said at a press briefing. “Some
of the increases are due to better detection, particularly among children who
may not have come to attention in the past, including girls, Hispanic children,
and children without cognitive impairment.  However, a simple explanation
is not apparent.” She added that “a true increase in risk cannot be ruled out”;
if confirmed, this would suggest that a recent environmental or societal
trigger is at least partially responsible.

To shed light on these possibilities, the CDC and other
government agencies are now beginning studies to “identify risks and protective
factors for ASDs and other developmental disabilities” during early
development, Rice said.

No one knows just what the follow-up studies will find. But with
prevalence at nearly 1 percent, one thing is clear: Autism can no longer be
considered rare or unusual. Those numbers may not only spur pharmaceutical
companies to invest more in researching potential treatments, they may help
reduce the stigma and obstacles many autistic patients face.

Autism advocacy groups echoed those sentiments, saying the
news was a wake-up call for immediate action. “These new findings reinforce
that autism is an urgent and growing public health crisis that affects most
individuals across their lifespan and demands a commensurate level of action
from both the public and private sectors,” science and advocacy organization Autism
Speaks said in a written statement.
The Autism Society, meanwhile, called
on the government
to address “the pressing need” for community-based
services for people with autism and more research into risk factors and
potential treatments.

-Aalok Mehta

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