New Study Shows Autism Rates Are on the Rise & the Reason Is Surprising

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Both scientists and parents have taken notice of the steadily rising autism rates in the US for two decades. Even with the specific causes of autism still unknown, it seems like more and more children are being diagnosed with the disorder every year. Recent findings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) prove that the number of autistic kids in the country is rising fast, but experts suggest that the cause of this rise might not be reason to panic.

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Every two years the Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network -- a group funded by the CDC -- releases a report that assesses how many kids in the US meet the criteria for autism spectrum disorder (ASD). This year's report, which covers the years 2012-2014, was released on April 26. It reviewed the school and medical records of 263,775 8-year-olds in 11 different states and found that about one in 59 kids fit the criteria for an autism diagnosis -- a sharp increase from one in 68 just two years prior. 

As a whole, autism rates in the US have increased 150 percent since the year 2000, when the statistic was about one in 150 children fitting the criteria for diagnosis of the disorder. But, despite the alarming numbers, the CDC says these increases aren't necessarily an indication that more kids are getting autism. Rather, more children with autism are actually being properly diagnosed earlier and more accurately -- especially children of color.

BuzzFeed News reports that black and Latino children, especially, have traditionally been underrepresented in federal autism statistics. A 2007 study by the Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities Research and Epidemiology found that African-American kids are 5.1 times more likely than white children to be misdiagnosed with behavioral disorders before getting an ASD diagnosis at a much older age. The CDC reports that in 2013, white children were 50 percent more likely to be diagnosed with autism than Latino kids and 20 percent more likely than black kids. While these disparities haven't disappeared completely, by 2014, white kids were only 20 percent more likely to be diagnosed than Latino kids and 10 percent more likely than black kids. 

"We don't have any reason to think there is a biological basis for difference in autism prevalence based on race and ethnicity," Daisy Christensen, autism surveillance leader at the CDC's National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities, told BuzzFeed News. "So it's actually encouraging to see those numbers become closer to the prevalence among white children, because we think this indicates these kids are being evaluated and diagnosed, and that may allow them to receive services."

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The 2018 report also revealed that between 2012 and 2014, boys were four times more likely to be diagnosed with ASD than girls. A  2017 piece by NPR suggested that this gap between girls and boys may actually be less wide than it appears, due to the fact that signs of autism are often "less obvious" in girls. Autistic girls are often more likely to socialize with their peers than autistic boys, granting them "social camouflage" from some of the more obvious signs of ASD. 

One thing that didn't seem to follow a pattern was the states the CDC chose to research for their report. Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Wisconsin were the 11 states profiled. The CDC's findings suggest that autism rates varied widely in each state. While one in 34 kids in New Jersey had ASD, the number in Arkansas was one in 76.

Daisy Christensen told BuzzFeed News that this is probably just another sign of lack of diagnosis. In places like New Jersey, kids are clustered in urban areas with more facilities and better testing. But in rural Arkansas, the resources available may be significantly more scarce. 

These new revelations are amazing. They signal great things for better care and intervention for autistic kids of all races and genders. But not everyone believes the CDC's reports are a good thing. David Mandell, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, told BuzzFeed News that he thinks the CDC's reporting methods rely too heavily on school and medical records and may be "overcounting" kids. 

"I'd love to see the energy that's put into doing this count every two years be put into improving the service system for people with autism, rather than conducting the same study over and over with the same inherent flaws," Mandell said. "It brings a tremendous amount of attention to the disorder, and research dollars, but I think it creates a tremendous amount of anxiety."

Still, experts want to make it clear that these rising numbers shouldn't scare parents into believing that autism is just becoming "more common" these days. "Autism is not a bad thing, and autistic people -- of all ages, races, and genders -- have always been here," Zoe Gross, director of operations for the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, told USA Today.  "What the CDC's research shows is that our data is catching up to that fact."

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