An estimated 1 in 110 children in the United States has an autism spectrum disorder, according to a new government analysis. The rate amounts to a 57 percent increase in the developmental disorder since federal investigators' last assessment in 2002.
If the new rate is correct, then 1 percent of the nation's children now have any one of the conditions that are classified as autism.
Autism is a developmental condition affecting verbal and nonverbal communication.
The analysis was reported Friday in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
The report revealed once again that there is a higher prevalence of autism in boys than girls. The new data also show a fivefold increase of autism in boys, whose rate of autism by gender is 1 in 70. The rate for girls, the CDC found, is 1 in 315.
The CDC's last prevalence study was in 2002 when it concluded the rate of autism was 1 in 150.
But a big question looms over the new research: Is this a true increase in autism or are more doctors diagnosing it?
"At this point it's impossible to say how much is a true increase and how much is improved identification," said CDC behavioral health scientist Catherine Rice, the report's lead author said at a briefing Friday.
Rice and her colleagues focused their study on children who were 8 by the close of 2006. They analyzed medical and educational records for 307,790 children in 11 states. The government picked 8-year-olds because that's when children are most likely to first have complete medical and school records - and when autism would have been fully documented.
The team reported the prevalence among white children increased 55 percent, compared with a 41 percent rise for black children and a 90 percent jump in prevalence for Hispanics.
"Some of the increases are due to better detection, particularly among children who may not have come to [medical] attention in the past," Rice said. She referred to girls, Hispanic children and children free of cognitive impairments.
Evelyn Ain, editor of Spectrum, a national autism-related magazine published in Hicksville, said she has been leading an effort to obtain state funding to find out how prevalent autism is on Long Island.
Dan Ryan, a Dix Hills father of three whose middle son, Jonathan, has an autism, said access to autism-related educational programs is one key to helping children thrive.
But Dr. Steven Pavlakis, director of developmental medicine and child neurology at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, says he is not fully convinced the new data show an increase in prevalence. "There are all kinds of pressures on the diagnosis," Pavlakis said. "In New York there is a pressure to diagnose it to get [interventional] services from the state."
"Three percent of the population is mentally [disabled] by definition so that three out of hundred is just the bell curve. And often a huge number of those patients are said to have PDD," Pavlakis said of pervasive developmental disorder. Autism is one of these disorders.
However, Dr. Andrew Adesman, chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at Schneider Children's Hospital in New Hyde Park, said the new prevalence findings are based on several subtleties.
While more pediatricians are diagnosing the disorder, more children are in need of interventional services to help with behavior and learning. "Our division continues to grow," he said. "We are seeing more and more children [with autism], more than any other center in the area."