Fort Worth, Texas,
13:59 PM

Why are more U.S. kids being diagnosed with autism than ever before?

Experts look at new research and increase in autism

A new survey shows a significant increase in the number of children, ages 3 to 17, diagnosed with autism in the United States.

But the research may simply be a matter of parents being more mindful of autism than they were previously.

“What is telling is that the overall prevalence of developmental disabilities hasn’t increased,” said Joyce Mauk, M.D., CEO and medical director of the Child Study Center. “Some of this is diagnostic substitution. Many more children with language disorders and some unusual features of behavior are now being diagnosed with autism.”

Dr. Mauk, who is board certified in pediatrics and neurodevelopmental pediatrics, said examiners are more likely to diagnose children with more subtle or mild symptoms of the autism spectrum than ever before because of the attention autism has gotten in recent years.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and National Center for Health Statistics stated reported that 1 in 45 children were diagnosed with autism in 2014, a leap of nearly 80 percent from 2011 to 2013 (1 in 68 children were diagnosed during that time period).

“The survey changed from 2013 to 2014 and the categories for autism were more inclusive in the most recent study,” said Lena Zettler, director of Psychology at Cook Children’s. “They included other developmental delays. The incidence isn’t necessarily changing, but awareness is.”

Both Dr. Mauk and Zettler agree that the focus should remain on the science we know.

Autism is more common if there other family members who are on the spectrum. Higher incidence in autism can occur if:

  • The father is older
  • Pregnancies are less than two years apart
  • Preemies are at a higher risk for developmental delays (including, but not limited to the autism spectrum)

The survey found that the majority of children diagnosed were boys than girls, with a 75 to 25 ratio. Fifty-nine percent were identified as non-Hispanic White.

Another key factor that some point to is the fact that more than 67 percent of the children who were diagnosed had at least one parent with more than a high school education, which could mean they are more likely to be aware and educated of the symptoms of autism, making for quicker identification.

“There is of course a lot we still don’t know about the underlying factors that cause autism, but I think the fact that people are becoming more aware is a great start,” Zettler said. “It makes for quicker diagnosis and care for the child.”

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Liz Ditz
Science writer and autism parent Emily Willingham also addresses this study: "Is it vaccines? Air pollution? Infections?Nope. The reason that the latest numbers for autism prevalence among US children have climbed traces largely to a simple change in how interviewers asked a question."