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Prevalence of Autism Spectrum Disorders


The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) published new data on March 30, 2012, showing that 1 in 88 children -- or 1.13 percent of U.S. children -- has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). This represents a 23 percent increase in the past two years.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) understands how concerning these numbers are to parents. Pediatricians know parents want answers about what causes autism, and so do the AAP and the pediatricians who care for children with autism every day. Some of the increase may be due to how children are diagnosed and treated in their communities. There also may be a true rise in incidence. To understand more, the scientific community must accelerate the research to understand what is putting children at risk for this disorder.

Science has shown there is a clear genetic component to ASD. Scientists are also studying many of the changes in our environment over the past two decades that may interact with genes to increase a person’s risk of developing symptoms of autism. Large epidemiologic studies, such as the National Children’s Study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, will be able to track what children are exposed to and their likelihood of developing autism, which will give some valuable clues.

One exposure that has been extensively studied is vaccines. The AAP wants to reassure parents that all signs show no link between vaccines and autism. Many studies have looked at this, and none has found a link. Parents who have questions about vaccines are encouraged to talk with their child’s pediatrician, who can provide scientifically validated information about immunizations.

The AAP recommends that all children be screened for autism at 18 and 24 months of age. The sooner autism is identified, the sooner an intervention program can start. If you are concerned about how your child plays, learns, speaks or acts, talk with your pediatrician. At the same time, call your state’s public early childhood system to request a free evaluation to find out if your child qualifies for intervention services. You do not need to wait for a doctor’s referral or medical diagnosis. Research shows that early intervention services can greatly improve a child’s development.

It’s important to collect data on the prevalence of autism, like this study does. Knowing how many children are affected enables communities to plan and allocate their resources so children can receive the therapies and services they need. It also helps target limited research dollars. Years ago, only a few scientists were looking at autism. Now, many researchers and organizations are dedicated to answering questions about autism. The AAP advocates for continued funding of research into the causes of autism spectrum disorder and successful interventions for children who are diagnosed. The AAP is committed to providing pediatricians the tools and training they need to help children identified through screening to obtain appropriate services and provide medical management. Federal programs need to continue to support postgraduate training of developmental experts to meet the need for an increasing number of diagnostic evaluations.

Resources for Pediatricians:

Autism Information

Autism Toolkit

Autism Prevalence Speaking Points

Autism Diagnosis and Management Speaking Points

Resources for Parents:

Sound Advice on Autism from the American Academy of Pediatrics

Autism Spectrum Disorders

Is it Autism?

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