April is National Autism Awareness Month. New studies suggest there are more people with autism than previously thought, but early intervention and treatment can make a big difference.
The CDC now estimates that 1 in 88 children is on the autism spectrum. That is 23% more than their last report from 2009, and 78% more than 2007. The largest increases were among Hispanic and African American children.
Autism has always been more common in boys. In fact, it is five times more common in boys than girls. With these new figures, it is estimated to affect about 1 in 54 boys and only 1 in 252 girls.
There is a considerable debate about why there has been such an increase in numbers. We know that some of the increase is due to the fact that we may be casting a wider net, and capturing children that wouldn’t have been considered autistic before. We also know that there is greater surveillance. This means that people, doctors, teachers, and parents are more aware of what autism is and they are much more vigilant in identifying signs and symptoms. In addition, more children are being identified at earlier ages. Some are diagnosed by the age of 3, for example, whereas children often used to be diagnosed later in childhood. Several people, however, are not convinced that this accounts for all of the increase in the numbers.
Unfortunately, researchers don’t know the cause of autism, but they don’t necessarily think there is any one cause. Many experts believe it is a combination of genetic and environmental factors. In other words, some people are genetically more susceptible to develop autism, but only when triggered by something in the environment. It is thought that there are certain factors that may put children at risk. We know that older parents, over the age of 40, are more likely to have a child with autism. Certain children born prematurely or at a low birth weight may be at higher risk, as well. On the positive side, it may be possible that taking folic acid before pregnancy and in the early stages of pregnancy can have a protective effect.
Contrary to popular belief, vaccines do not play a role. Nearly two-dozen studies have failed to find a link between autism and vaccines, when given alone or in combination. Most experts are hoping that we can move on from vaccines, so that we can focus on those environmental factors that may really be involved.
There is a study out of Columbia that is offering hope for some families of kids with autism. As the study involved about 7,000 kids, it was found that early intervention and treatment can turn as many as 10% of children with autism into “late bloomers”. These are children initially assessed as being “low functioning,” who improved so substantially as adolescents that they were on a par with “high functioning” kids with autism.
When is autism typically diagnosed? Parents and caregivers often notice symptoms of autism when the children are about three years of age. There are often signs earlier than that, however, and because of this the American Academy of Pediatrics is calling for all children to be screened for signs and symptoms at the age of 2.
There is a wide range of autism symptoms. Kids with autism generally have problems with social interactions and relationships. Other common symptoms include poor eye contact, lack of empathy, trouble understanding non verbal cues, delayed speech and language, and repetitive behaviors like rocking or hand flapping.
Back to Headlines