Summer 2013

Autism on the Rise

Mild or delayed cases contribute to more diagnoses

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Photo: iStock photo

A recent phone survey of parents done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says one in 50 U.S. schoolchildren has autism, surpassing an earlier federal estimate for the developmental disorder.

Health officials note the new number doesn’t mean autism is occurring more often. But it does suggest that doctors are diagnosing the condition more frequently, especially in children with milder problems. The earlier government study, which put the incidence of autism at one in 88 children, reviewed medical and school records instead of relying on parents for input.

Still, CDC officials believe the latest survey provides a true picture of how many families are affected by autism, said Stephen Blumberg, the lead author of the CDC report.

Diagnosis is not an exact science, stemming as it does from judgments about a child’s behavior. Doctors have been looking for autism at younger and younger ages, and experts have generally believed most diagnoses can be made in children by age 8. However, the new study found significant numbers of children escaped early diagnosis and developed the condition later on.

Roula Choueiri, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Tufts and a neurodevelopmental pediatrician at Tufts Medical Center, confirmed she’s seen that happening at her clinic. The kids in question “tend to be the mild ones who may have had some speech delays, some social difficulties” early on, she told the Associated Press. Problems for the kids grow in later life.

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