A new study from The Centers for Disease Control shows more children than ever are being diagnosed with autism. As recently as 2002, the CDC reported the number of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder was one in 150. Since then, the number has been growing and in a new report issued in April, the number of children with autism at age 8 has reached one in 59.
"I love taking care of these kids!" says Dr. Regina Gargus, a developmental pediatrician with MedNax Pediatrics and Medical Director of Developmental Pediatrics at The Studer Family Children’s Hospital at Sacred Heart. She believes that one of the reasons for the rise is the fact that we’re looking harder for affected children at an earlier age. "The Acadamy of Pediatrics has put forth increadible effort to have all children aged 18 months to 36 months reviewed in their primary care practices for the possibility of autism. And this is done with a screener called the M-CHAT."
The M-CHAT is simply a questionnaire given to parents about their child’s social engagements and play activities in their toddler years. This has caused a shift in some of the assumptions about just who may be more likely to have autism. One of the biggest increases has been with children of African American and Hispanic families. "It was initially felt that (autism) was much higher in the Caucasian population, or the non-Hispanic white population. What we're finding is there are areas of the country where (the rates of autism) are actually equal in all races. And if you look at global data, around the world, there is autism present in all nationalities." When it comes to gender, the difference has remained stark. Almost 75% of children with autism are boys.
This information comes from the CDC’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network, or the ADDM. It bases its conclusions on data collected from health and special education records of children living in 11 communities across the United States during 2014. These 11 communities comprised 8% of the United States population of 8-year-olds in 2014. While Dr. Gargus thinks the small sample size may have an effect on the numbers, she says that if it means some children will get care at a younger age, the study has served its purpose. "I think the child getting into the primary care doctor in the infant and toddler years is critical for them to identify whether a child has differences in their social and emotional development, in their play activities, in their communication skills. And then getting those children who are showing language and communication delays and social delays into speech therapy and occupational therapy while they are waiting for their developmental assessment will help these young toddlers have earlier access to care."
And the care these children receive has changed over the years. It’s no longer a matter of just getting them to calm down and keep quiet. "Children who are on the autism spectrum, in some sence, are their own worst enemy. They are calm and happy when they are doing their own thing, left alone to play in the same way for hours. When you try to engage many of these young children they have a meltdown, and people think 'Oh, this child doesn't want to be touched, doesn't want to be doing play activities with other children', and they try to just keep the child calm and happy. And we actually need to do the reverse. We need to be actively engaging the child in a variety of play with other toddlers so that we are enhancing their learning."