Autism rates are trending up, CDC reports

According to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), rates of autism in children have risen again.

According to the CDC, 1 in 36 (2.8%) 8-year-old children have been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) — up from the previous 2018 estimate of 1 in 44 (2.3%).

The updated data comes from 11 communities in the Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring (ADDM) network and was published online March 23 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR).

A separate report in the MMWR on 4-year-old children in the same 11 communities highlights the impact of COVID-19 and reveals disruptions in early detection of autism.

In the early months of the pandemic, 4-year-old children were less likely to have had a screening or be identified with ASD than 8-year-old children of the same age. This coincides with disruptions to childcare and health services during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Disruptions from the pandemic in the timely screening of children and delays in connecting children to the services and support they need could have a long-lasting impact,” said Karen Remley, MD, director of the National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities the CDC said in a statement.

“The data in this report can help communities better understand how the pandemic has affected early detection of autism in young children and anticipate future needs as those children grow older,” noted Remley.

Demographic change

The latest data also shows that ASD prevalence among Asian, Black, and Hispanic children was at least 30% higher in 2020 than in 2018, and ASD prevalence among White children was 14.6% higher than in 2018 .

For the first time, the percentage of 8-year-old Asian/Pacific Islander (3.3%), Hispanic (3.2%) and Black (2.9%) children identified with autism exceeded the percentage, according to the CDC of 8-year-old white children (2.4%).

This is the opposite of racial and ethnic differences found in previous ADDM reports for 8-year-olds. These shifts may reflect improved screening, awareness, and access to services among historically underserved groups, the CDC says.

Differences in co-occurring intellectual disabilities also persist, with a higher percentage of Black children with autism being identified as having intellectual disabilities than White, Hispanic, or Asian/Pacific Islander people with autism. Those differences may relate in part to access to services that diagnose and support children with autism, the CDC said.

Overall, the prevalence of autism was almost four times higher in boys than in girls within the 11 ADDM communities. However, it is the first time that the prevalence of autism in 8-year-old girls has exceeded 1%.

Community Differences

The prevalence of autism in the 11 ADDM communities ranged from 1 in 43 (2.3%) children in Maryland to 1 in 22 (4.5%) in California—variations that may reflect how the communities treat children with identify autism.

This variability provides an opportunity to compare local policies and models for the delivery of diagnostic and interventional services that could improve the identification of autism and provide more comprehensive support for people with autism, the CDC said.

MMWR Morb Mortal Weekly Rep. Published online March 23, 2023. Full text

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