In early 2012, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued findings from a study that found one in 88 children is now diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) by the age of eight. This is a 23 percent increase in ASD diagnoses in just two years. What troubles doctors is that the rate has risen far above the 2006 estimate of one in 110.
The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke says that ASD includes a range of complex neurodevelopmental disorders, characterized by social impairment, communication difficulties, and restricted, repetitive, and stereotyped patterns of behavior. Children with ASD can have difficulties learning what are typically simple lessons for other children. Although ASD varies in severity, the common thread is that it occurs in all ethnic groups and affects every age. Males are four times more likely to have ASD than females.
Doctors do not understand why autism rates have risen so profoundly. Some believe that a broader definition of autism is fueling these growing numbers. Diagnostic criteria has changed, and ASD is now encompassing conditions that weren’t first included under the autism banner. Currently, ASD is classified into the following subsets.
Pervasive developmental disorders (not otherwise specified, or PDD-NOS): These are a large group of disorders characterized by delays in communication and socialization skills. Children may vary in their abilities, intelligence and behaviors. A PDD is typically diagnosed by age three.
Asperger’s syndrome (AS): AS is a developmental disorder that includes repetitive routines or rituals, peculiarities in speech and language, such as speaking in a formal manner or monotone, socially and emotionally inappropriate behavior and the inability to interact with peers, clumsy motor movements, and problems with nonverbal communication. Unlike children with autism, children with AS retain their early language skills, but their condition may be realized due to motor development delays, says the National Institutes of Health.
Autism disorder (AD): Also known as classical autism, those with this diagnosis often have the most severe form of ASD. Characteristics of this disorder include repetitive movements, self-abusive behavior, inability to speak or communicate, failure to play with other children, and no smiling or social responsiveness. Many with AD have restricted patterns of interest that are abnormal in intensity or focus.
Because children are placed on the autism spectrum at different severities, autism in general is quite a broad term – and only seems to be getting broader. Therefore, net ASD includes more and more children who may not have been diagnosed with ASD in the past. Increasingly, doctors and specialists have a better understanding of behaviors and symptoms indicative of ASD, which means more children have the potential for an ASD diagnosis than in the past. These are just some of the factors contributing to why autism rates seem to be growing.
According to Autism Speaks, just a few years ago little was known about the causes of autism. Now it is known that there is no one cause of autism, just as there is no one type. Scientists recently identified a number of rare genetic changes, or mutations, associated with autism. Many cases, however, seem to be a combination of genetics and environmental influences during early brain development.
The organization also notes that the clearest evidence of these autism risk factors involves events before and during birth. They include advanced parental age at the time of conception (both of mom and dad), maternal illness during pregnancy and certain difficulties during birth, particularly those involving periods of oxygen deprivation to the baby’s brain. These factors don’t cause autism, but they can contribute to it.
Autism spectrum disorder affects more than one million children in the United States alone. Mark Roithmayer, president of Autism Speaks, says that autism should officially be considered an epidemic in the United States. Ongoing research and customized treatment options remain the best opportunities for anyone with ASD.