There may be higher prevalence of autism among children these days, with the COVID-19 pandemic contributing to delays in diagnosis, new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show.
What the CDC autism studies found
According to the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, which looked at data from 11 communities around the U.S., 1 in 36 (2.8%) children aged 8 were identified as having autism spectrum disorder — a 22% increase from 2018, which found a prevalence of 1 in 44 (2.3%) children. The communities are part of the CDC's Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network and are not nationally representative, the agency noted.
A second report also using data from the monitoring network found that, among 4-year-old children, the earlier stages of the pandemic hindered early autism detection: In the spring of 2020, 4-year-olds were less likely to be evaluated for or be identified with autism spectrum disorder than 8-year-old children were at the same age.
"This coincides with the interruptions in child care and health care services during the COVID-19 pandemic," a CDC press release explained.
The research focused on 8-year-olds because of earlier data from the 1990s that focused on this age and 4-year-olds because it allows researchers to look at early community identification practices.
Other results from the studies:
- In 2020, prevalence for autism spectrum disorder was 30% higher for Black, Asian and Hispanic 8-year-olds than in 2018. For white 8-year-olds, ASD prevalence was 14.6% higher than it was in 2018.
- For the first time, the autism rates among Asian or Pacific Islander (3.3%), Hispanic (3.2%) and Black 8-year-olds (2.9%) were higher than among white 8-year-olds (2.4%). "These shifts may reflect improved screening, awareness, and access to services among historically underserved groups," the press released explained.
- The prevalence of ASD was almost four times higher for 8-year-old boys than girls. This is the first CDC report where the prevalence of autism among 8-year-old girls was higher than 1%.
Why are autism diagnoses possibly increasing in U.S. kids?
"We can’t say if ... the number of people with autism is actually increasing in our country — or that the number of people that are being diagnosed and then have access to services — is increasing," Dr. Karen Remley, director of CDC’s National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities, tells TODAY.com.
She adds that "it's optimistic" that more diagnoses could mean more children getting access to services that they wouldn't have if they weren't diagnosed.
Kelly Shaw, Ph.D., epidemiologist and first author of the report on 4-year-olds, agrees that what's driving this increase isn't clear.
"Our best guess, consistent with the general rise in autism prevalence rates, is that it is more equitable access to evaluations and diagnoses," Shaw tells TODAY.com, adding that there's a growing recognition that autism can affect all children.
The increase in autism diagnoses in girls is especially significant, as when boys surpassed the 1% prevalence rate years back, it was considered a "landmark finding," Matthew J. Maenner, Ph.D, first author of the report on 8-year-olds and chief of the CDC's child development and disability branch, tells TODAY.com.
The research into why boys have so much higher rates than girls is ongoing, he adds: "Researchers have a lot of different ideas about why that might be. Some think there might be some biological or hereditary factors."
"People have also raised questions about whether ... the tests are designed to better measure symptoms in boys," Maenner continues. "If it’s a condition that is diagnosed on the basis of behavior and you’re saying maybe this group has autism but isn’t showing the behaviors, it’s a philosophical (issue)."
More compassion for the autism community
Childhood detection was key for public speaker and activist Kerry Magro, who was diagnosed with autism when he was almost 3.
"I was non-speaking until I was 2 and a half, and did not use complete sentences until age 7," he tells TODAY.com. Back then, he said, his parents' only exposure to the term "autism" was from the 1988 film "Rain Man."
Magro became cognizant of his diagnosis at age 11.
"(It was) after so many years of uncertainty and not knowing why I was special," he says. "Finding out was life changing."
Education has come a long way, he adds.
"There is a lot more compassion and understanding. ... The other day, I was speaking at a middle school and a child raised his hand and said, 'I just wanted to let you know I have autism'," recalls Magro. "The idea that a 10-year-old boy is comfortable in his own skin and seeing someone who is also on the spectrum, hopefully will lead to effective change."
What parents should know
The researchers encouraged parents to learn about the CDC's "Learn the signs, act early" program, which helps parents recognize the signs of autism in their children. The app, which tracks development milestones, is available in English and Spanish and starts as early as 2 months old.
"I used it for my son when he was younger ... and it was just good. I liked it as a parent," Maenner says. "There’s lots of resources available including on how to talk to your provider if you do have concerns."
If you're concerned about your child's development, the CDC encourages parents to talk to their child's health care provider and ask about a developmental screening. "Don’t wait. Acting early can make a real difference!" the CDC noted.