A new report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has found that autism (ASD) rates in America are at their all-time highest, increasing by 15 percent in two years, contrary to a study released earlier this year suggesting they had actually stabilized. However, there are many explanations for this rise, from improved diagnosis to increased awareness of ASD.
Autism is a developmental condition that can affect how someone communicates and relates to other people, as well as how they experience their surroundings. Autism can’t be cured and its cause still isn’t clear, although it could be related to genes, or to do with having too many nerve connections in the brain.
The new report looked at data from 2014 and is the sixth in a series of CDC reports released every two years. The data was collected from 11 regional monitoring sites as part of the Autism Disabilities Monitoring Network (ADDM) across 11 states, including Arizona, Colorado, New Jersey, Wisconsin, and Georgia.
The researchers found that one in 59 children aged 8 in 2014 was diagnosed with ASD. The last report, which used data from 2012, found the prevalence to be one in 68 children. As has historically been the case, the researchers also found ASD to be more common among boys than girls, with 2.7 percent of boys being diagnosed compared to 0.7 percent of girls. We’re not exactly sure why this is, although it could be a genetic difference or a flaw in diagnosis as ASD may simply manifest itself differently in girls.
While the gender gap remains, differences between ethnic and racial groups have lessened. Previous CDC reports have found ASD prevalence to be between and 20 and 30 percent higher among white children compared to black children, now this difference is just 7 percent. However, the reason why this difference exists isn’t quite clear.
"Although we continue to see disparities among racial and ethnic groups, the gap is closing," said Dr Li-Ching Lee, principal investigator for the Maryland branch of the report. Lee also noted that many children are not evaluated for ASD until a few years after they start showing signs of abnormal development. In fact, many have issues at the age of three, but proper analysis often isn’t conducted until later.
What’s very important to note with this study is that although the report doesn’t give much indication of what’s causing the increase in ASD prevalence, it’s probably not just that more people have autism. Diagnosing autism can be tricky, but diagnostic techniques are constantly improving, and criteria for diagnosis have broadened in recent years. Therefore, people whose symptoms once wouldn’t have been picked up are now being diagnosed with ASD.
“Autism is not a bad thing, and autistic people – of all ages, races, and genders – have always been here,” Zoe Gross, from the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, told USA Today. “What the CDC’s research shows is that our data is catching up to that fact.”
So, while it appears that autism is rapidly on the rise, it’s actually more likely just the result of medical improvements helping doctors diagnose more cases, in turn allowing more and more people with ASD to access the help they need.