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New survey shows increase in autism rates

Last month, the US Department of Health and Human Services released a new report that asked families a whole host of questions related to wellness and disability. In 2014, over 11,000 parents were surveyed with each answering questions about one randomly selected child in their family. The child had to be between the ages of 3 and 17, as developmental delays are not always identified earlier.

One of the interesting things about that questionnaire was that the wording and order of some developmental questions was changed. In the new questionnaire parents were asked, “Did a doctor or health professional ever tell you that [child’s name] had autism, Asperger’s disorder, pervasive developmental disorder, or autism spectrum disorder?” This was a much more specific question than in previous years and resulted in a prevalence rate nearly twice that which was reported between 2011 and 2013. Prevalence rate is the term used to describe the proportion of people in a group that have a specific characteristic at a specific time. So the prevalence rate of 2.24 percent indicated that one in 49 children between the ages of 3 and 17 in the US have been diagnosed with autism/ASD according to their parents.

Using the new questions the prevalence rate of developmental delay as reported by parents decreased significantly from 4.84 percent to 3.57 percent in 2014. The authors of the study suspect some of this shift is due to improvement in study questions resulting in parents identifying more children in the autism/ASD group instead of the developmental delay group. Nevertheless, the results of one in 45 children carrying an autism/ASD diagnosis is important and a big difference between the CDC’s official estimate of prevalence of one in 68 children. It underscores the importance of early screening and early diagnosis of autism/ASD, as well as identifying autism specifically, instead of lumping it into a broad category of developmental delay.

Autism and ASD require specific treatments, which include early intervention. Having an accurate estimate of the prevalence of Autism is necessary if we are going to adequately fund programs for therapy and early intervention. Parents shouldn’t fear this new number; the recommendations for screening are the same. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends screening for autism at 18 and 24 month well child exams using the Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers (M-CHAT) or at any time a parent or caregiver has concerns. A parent should be aware that this screening is important and complete it when asked by their doctor. A parent with any concerns should be comfortable bringing those concerns up to the pediatrician and should be aware that early intervention screening is available, at no cost, throughout the US.

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About Dr. Sara Connolly, Bundoo Medical Director

Sara Connolly, MD, FAAP, is a Board Certified Pediatrician who practices in Palm Beach County, Florida. She completed her residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital at the University of Miami, where she served as Chief Resident. She has a passion for child advocacy and has worked on the local, state, and national level to increase access to care for children. Her interests include nutrition, breastfeeding, and parenting skills.

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