Autism, once a rare and mysterious disorder, is no longer so. Today, it is being called an epidemic. Fifteen years ago, the incidence of autism was 1 in 2500 children. Today it is much more prevalent. What we‚ have learned from recent studies is that the number of children with autism and autism spectrum disorders (ASD) a broader category that includes higher functioning autism (Aspergers) and PDD-NOS, is even higher at a rate of 1 in 150 children.
In 1998, a very thorough epidemiological study of 3 to 10 year olds in Brick Township, New Jersey, was undertaken by the Center for Disease Control (CDC.) The CDC calculated the incidence rate for autism as 1 in 250 children, and the incidence rate for Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), at 1 in 150 children.A similar study was performed in 2001 in the United Kingdom and reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA.) This study followed children between the ages of 2.5 to 6.5 years old. The findings confirmed the previous study's high incidence of Autism at 1 in 161 children.
The latest study, undertaken in Atlanta and published in 2003, followed 289,000 children ages 3 to 10 years old during the year 1996. The Atlanta study reported an incidence rate of 1 in 294 children, and suggested that most of these cases fell into the narrower definition of autism. The report also verified that the rate of autism was consistent across all race classifications, and increases in autism did not appear to be influenced by race. These figures supported the findings of the previous CDC study in Brick Township.
However, the Atlanta study also provided some disturbing trends. Of the children identified with autism by the study, only 62% of these children had received an official diagnosis of autism and were receiving supportive services. Nineteen percent of the children were demonstrating behaviors consistent with an ASD diagnosis, but had not yet been diagnosed, eventhough these children had shown indications and been suspected of having ASD. Another 16% of the children in the study had originally been given an incorrect diagnosis and are now identified and diagnosed with a form of Autism Spectrum Disorder.
The Atlanta study suggests is that there is even a larger population of children with autism than what the early intervention and school systems are capturing. A large number of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder are going undetected by the system. And these children are not getting the appropriate services or support they need at a crucial time in their development.The earlier the disorder is diagnosed, the sooner the child can be helped through treatment interventions. Pediatricians, family physicians, daycare providers, teachers, and parents may initially dismiss signs of ASD, optimistically thinking the child is just a little slow and will "catch up." Although early intervention has a dramatic impact on reducing symptoms and increasing a child's ability to grow and learn new skills, it is estimated that only 50 percent of children are diagnosed before kindergarten.