Rate of autism rising, but many asking, ‘Why?’

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has released an updated report about the prevalence of autistic-spectrum disorders. The report, from the federally funded Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network, reflects data collected from U.S. children who were 8 years old in 2008.

The report shows a striking trend toward increased rates of autism, with one in 88 children identified as having an autistic spectrum disorder. That is a 78 percent increase since the first report came out five years ago.

The reason for the rising prevalence of this developmental disorder is not fully understood. One likely factor is improving recognition of the disorder through better screening processes implemented by health professionals in recent years. Better awareness of these disorders also may account for more substantial increases noted among Hispanic and African American children.

The report targeted 8-year-olds because previous studies have shown that the majority of children with autistic spectrum disorders have been identified for services by this age.

Efforts to promote much earlier recognition have been under way after guidance by the American Academy of Pediatrics that all U.S. children be screened by age 2. The importance of screening and early recognition for autistic spectrum disorders is the impact of referral for early intervention services during the critical early stages of child development.

Parents, teachers, day care staff, health-care providers and other child advocates can all play a role in the process of early identification for developmental disorders. The ability to identify problems in how a child plays, learns, speaks and acts begins with a basic understanding of child-developmental milestones between birth and age 5.

Educating parents and children is the goal of the CDC’s “Learn the Signs, Act Early” campaign, which has been working with national partners such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, Autism Society of America and First Signs to raise awareness about common developmental disorders and promote early recognition and early intervention.

First Signs, a national organization devoted to promoting understanding about early-warning signs of autistic spectrum disorders, points out that certain “red flag” signs should prompt a discussion with a child’s health-care provider because they are so strongly suggestive of an autistic spectrum disorder.

These signs include impairments in social interactions such as lack of appropriate eye gaze, lack of sharing interest or enjoyment, lack of joyful expressions and lack of response to name. There also are common impairments in communication ranging from lack of showing-type gestures to poorly coordinated nonverbal communication as well as unusual voice quality. Other hallmark features of an autistic disorder include repetitive movements with objects or repetitive movements of arms, hands or fingers.

Frankly, parents often are well-suited to the recognition of developmental problems in their children. When parental concerns exist, they should be communicated to the health-care provider and taken seriously.

For more information about the CDC’s report and educational campaign, visit CDC.gov.

Dr. Matthew A. Clark is a board-certified physician in internal medicine and pediatrics practicing at the Ute Mountain Health Center in Towaoc.