New research showing one in 88 U.S. children have autism spectrum disorders is focusing national attention on the need for earlier diagnosis and treatment, especially in rural and minority communities.
Figures released Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show a 23% increase in autism spectrum cases from 2006 to 2008, and a 78% increase since 2002.
The largest increases are among black and Hispanic children, who have lagged behind whites in the past. Numbers are higher for boys, with one in 54 8-year-olds now considered to have autism, Asperger's or a related condition. No one knows why the condition is five times more likely to affect boys than girls.
More cases are diagnosed sooner -- average age at diagnosis has dropped from 4 to 4. But it needs to be even earlier, says Coleen Boyle, director of the CDC's National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities. "We heard from many parents that they were concerned long before their child was diagnosed."
It's also not known whether increases are because of better counting or something in the environment -- or a mixture of both. Researchers are studying air pollution, nutrition, medications, environmental toxins and other factors.
"What we do know for certain is autism is common and needs to be effectively served," CDC Director Thomas Frieden says.
The CDC has a surveillance network around the country that has counted 8-year-olds on the autism spectrum every two years. The new numbers are based on tallies from 14 sites.
Autism Speaks, an advocacy group, says the figures mean that the USA needs to invest in the kind of research that will help better explain why the numbers are rising so rapidly. "Clearly, we have a national emergency and clearly, we need a national plan," President Mark Roithmayr says.
Roy Richard Grinker, an anthropology professor at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., thinks numbers still underestimate the problem. His study last year in South Korea found an autism rate of one in 38 children there.
He says states including Alabama have lagged behind others in diagnoses because it is a large, rural state without many services for kids with autism. Rising rates may actually be a good thing, he says, because it means more children who need help are being identified. "It doesn't mean that there's a true increase in cases."
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