Higher Autism Numbers Announced as Feds Introduce Early Screening Program

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(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Every two years, the federal government announces the rate of autism. This is what NPR's shots blog had to say about today's numbers, which show 1 in 68 children in the U.S. have an autism spectrum disorder.

That's a remarkable jump from just two years ago, when the figure was 1 in 88 and an even bigger jump from 2007, when it was just 1 in 150.

But officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials say the agency's skyrocketing estimates don't necessarily mean that kids are more likely to have autism now than they were 10 years ago.

"It may be that we're getting better at identifying autism," says Coleen Boyle, director of the CDC's National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental disabilities.

For one thing, the prevalence seems to vary in different communities and among children of different races. The CDC found white children are far more likely to be identified with autism, even though scientists don't believe the rates are truly different between whites, Hispanics or blacks.

That means that the discrepancy lies in the diagnosis and services available in different communities. The shots blog points out the work of George Washington University anthropologist Roy Richard Grinker.

Along with other researchers, he studied autism prevalence in South Korea. They found that 1 in 38 children there met the criteria for autism spectrum disorder. Grinker thinks that the US number is likely closer to the one they saw in South Korea. Which means that in two years the CDC estimate will likely tick higher still.

The Autistic Self Advocacy Network issued a statement saying that the CDC numbers show there are big disparities in diagnoses. For example, boys were 4-5 times more likely to be diagnosed than girls. And when it comes to race, white children were about a third more likely to be identified with Autism Specrum Disorder (ASD) than black children and almost 50% more likely to be identified with ASD than Hispanic children.


All of this makes another federal announcement by the Department of Health and Human Services today even more relevant.

The US government is launching a program called Watch Me Thrive. The idea is that by giving parents, caregivers, early childhood teachers and physicians of children under 5 more information about screening for developmental delays, more children will receive services faster. And officials say earlier intervention can lead to more positive outcomes in education and life.

Shannon Rosa, a parent-advocate in the Bay Area, said this is something that has been needed for a long time.

"What we need to focus on is getting more people identified so they can get the supports they need," she said.

Rosa says she finds it really distressing that there are kids out there that need services but because they haven't been diagnosed, they are not getting them. She says that can exacerbate the challenges they face.

"The rate of anxiety disorder in people with autism is incredibly high," she said. "You have kids that are being bullied, the teachers are expecting to have them perform at the same rate as other classmates. And this doesn’t have to happen if they’re given the proper support."

She cautions however, that any HHS program needs to strike a careful tone for parents of youngsters when they present developmental milestones.

"I hope they say 'It’s great if they meet these milestones, and if not here are the resources. We’ve got your back no matter what," said Rosa.

Dr. Irva Hertz-Piccioto, Deputy Director of the UC Davis Children's Center for Environmental Health, says she thinks this program could specifically help with the diagnosis inequities.

"People who live in communities with low resources of all types usually don’t have as much access and face various barriers, like transportation, to what screening programs do exist," she said. "It looks like it could be a great thing, but we’ll have to keep an eye out for how they disseminate the information and how well it’s managed ."

The practical details about how the program will be implemented in California are still unclear. But Nancy Lungren, a spokesperson for the California Department of Developmental Services, says it looks only positive.

"We like the idea of this new initiative." she said. "More resources are always welcome."

Lungren said the new initiative will complement the outreach that is being done at 21 regional centers around the state.