By Anne Dachel
In March, 2013, the big news from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was another stunning jump in the autism rate. According to a national survey of parents in 2011 and 2012, one in every 50 U.S. children ages 6 to 17 has autism. The previous rate of one in 88 children, announced one year earlier in 2012, was based only on studies of children who were born in 2000. 2013 ONE IN 50 WITH AUTISM DIDN'T MEAN MORE AFFECTED CHILDREN
Here are examples of what was said about the new statistic.
New York Daily News, March 29, 2013. In a piece called, One in 50 American kids has autism: What the latest figures tell us, they had a photo of six year old twins, Ariana & Feriyal Khan, smiling and hugging during a ballet class. The story said, "Although National Autism Awareness Month doesn't officially start until Monday, the campaign got a jump-start last week with the finding that autism spectrum disorders, or ASDs, affect 1 in 50 American children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. . . .
"The numbers released last week mark a significant increase from the CDC's previous report on the issue, which last year put prevalence at 1 in 88 children. However, these figures can't be compared, the CDC says. 'These reports use different methods to answer different questions about autism,' CDC representatives said in an e-mail to U.S. News. 'Both reports help paint a more complete picture of autism in our nation.'"
The New Daily News also expressed concern.
"In either case, the data shows skyrocketing reports of these disorders among children, with boys four times as likely as girls to be diagnosed. The extent to which these rates reflect a better understanding and, thus, diagnosing of these conditions is unknown, but 'a true increase in the number of people with an ASD cannot be ruled out,' the CDC says on its website.
"Despite better detection, 'at least half of the increase in prevalence is unexplained,' says Michael Rosanoff, epidemiologist and associate director for public health research at Autism Speaks, a research and advocacy group. For his part, Rosanoff wasn't surprised by the report. 'We're underestimating the magnitude of this public health challenge,' he says." . . .
WebMD had this to say about the increase in an article with the title, 1 in 50 School-Aged Children in U.S. Has Autism.
"'This estimate was a bit surprising,' said report author Stephen Blumberg, a senior scientist at the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics. 'There may be more children with autism spectrum disorder than previously thought.'"
"The average school bus holds about 50 children, so there is typically one child with autism spectrum disorder on every full school bus in America, Blumberg noted." . . .
"The main reason for the increase in the prevalence of autism appears to be better diagnoses, especially in older children, Blumberg said." . . .
"'For the most part, the increase in the prevalence is largely due to an increase in the prevalence in reported autism spectrum disorder for boys,' he said.
"None of the other factors, such as survey bias, could explain the increase, he added. Most of the children who were diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder were diagnosed since the last survey in 2008, Blumberg noted.
"'By ruling out other explanations and noting the increase in recent diagnoses, that suggests to us that improved ascertainment -- recognizing children who were previously unrecognized as having autism spectrum disorder -- is the reason,' he said.
"This may be the reason most of those newly diagnosed children tend to have milder forms of autism, Blumberg said.
"'It would certainly make sense that those with unrecognized autism spectrum disorder may have symptoms that are milder than children who have been diagnosed earlier,' he said." . . .
"'What we are seeing is that children who have not been diagnosed in the past are now being diagnosed,' he said. 'That is likely due to doctors and other health care providers being better at recognizing the more milder symptoms of autism and being able to diagnose those.'" . . .
Again no real alarm and credit was given to doctors for getting even better at better diagnosing. No one was worried about the possibility of a real increase in a disorder with no known cause or cure.
Important news outlets covered it.
In a 21 second news report on CBS This Morning on March 20, 2013, the anchor merely gave us the new rate, cited the old one and then added, "The new numbers may simply be the result of better reporting."
That same day, NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams had this to say. "The number of children with autism in this country may be a lot higher than previously thought, according to new research from the CDC."
NBC medical expert, Dr. Robert Bazell continued the story. "Autism diagnoses have grown to the point where parents report fully one in 50 school aged children has autism. . . .
A mom was shown saying that this was scary and someone should figure out why this is happening.
Bazell continued, "The latest numbers from a telephone survey by the federal government show the highest increase occurring in mild cases . . .
". . . That means about one million children in the United States are now diagnosed with autism. . . But experts say that the new numbers don't necessarily point to a genuine increase in the neurological changes that are labeled as autism."
Next Dr. Zachary Warren from Vanderbilt University Medical Center appeared, saying, "There are a lot of things that are changing. One, awareness is changing. We hear about autism in many different circles. Two, clinicians are recognizing autism much more frequently. Both of those factors are certainly playing into the increased numbers that we're seeing."
As happy children are shown climbing on playground equipment, a voiceover from Bazell said, "Experts say more research is needed to know for certain whether other factors are involved in the ever-growing numbers of American children being diagnosed with autism. "
The largest advocacy group, Autism Speaks, neatly explained the supposed increase.
"A new government survey of parents indicates that 1 in 50 school-age children have autism spectrum disorder (ASD). This is significantly higher than the official government estimate of 1 in 88 American children. It also supports research suggesting that many affected children are being missed by the surveillance methods the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) uses to produce its official estimate.
"The CDC's 1 in 88 estimate of autism prevalence is based on medical and school records of 8-year-old children at monitoring sites across the country. As such, it misses children who are not receiving medical or special education services related to autism. The new 1 in 50 estimate comes from a 2011-2012 telephone survey that asked nearly 100,000 parents across the country a range of health-related questions about children ages 6 to 17. 'This number does not replace the official 1 in 88 estimate, but does suggest that it may be a significant underestimate of autism prevalence in the U.S.,' says Autism Speaks Associated Director of Public Health Research Michael Rosanoff, M.P.H. 'One in fifty, or 2 percent, is much closer to what we've seen from research that involves directly screening children in the community.'"
"Children who were, therefore, walking around for quite a few years with autism that went unrecognized . and uncounted. That fits with the idea that a lot of the increase in autism we've seen in the last decade has much to do with greater awareness and identification."
New York Times:
"According to experts not involved in the report, the increase coincided with a period of soaring awareness of autism spectrum disorders among clinicians and schools, as well as parents.
"The report emphasized that while the numbers changed from 1 in 88 children, ages 6 to 17, having received a diagnosis in a 2007 parent survey, to 1 in 50 children in the current report, most of the increase was because of previously undiagnosed cases."
"As many as one in 50 U.S. school age children have a diagnosis of autism, up 72 percent since 2007, but much of the increase involves milder cases, suggesting the rise is linked to better recognition of autism symptoms and not more cases, government researchers said on Wednesday."
So I guess the message last March was that nothing was wrong with having an autism rate of one on 50. There was a good explanation. More kids didn't really have autism.
2012 ONE IN 88 WAS NO REAL INCREASE EITHER
What's really hard to figure out is the fact that when the rate from one 110 to one in 88 back in March 2012, everyone was saying the same thing about the increase. All the major news sources denied a true increase.
"But autism researchers around the country said the CDC data - including striking geographic and racial variations in the rates and how they have changed - suggest that rising awareness of the disorder, better detection and improved access to services can explain much of the surge, and perhaps all of it."
"There is a good possibility that much of the reported increase in the prevalence of autism is illusory, however. When asked about this during the news conference, CDC's Frieden pointed out that 'doctors have gotten better at diagnosing the condition and communities have gotten better at providing services, so I think we can say it is possible that the increase is the result of better detection.'"
"But what this rise actually means is still a mystery. Some doctors contacted by ABC News believe a broader definition of autism has contributed to rising rates.
"'I think it has to do with changing diagnostic criteria, including mine over the years which have made me label many more children as being on the autism spectrum than say 10-20 years ago,' said Dr. Isabelle Rapin, professor of pediatrics and neurology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. 'Not only physicians, but parents, teachers, therapists and the public are much more aware of the symptoms of autism, and I suspect some may apply the diagnosis based on one symptom, which is inadequate.'"
The pattern is clear here. Whatever the numbers, there is an explanation attesting to the fact more kids don't really have autism. I do have to wonder what's going on here. Eight months ago the CDC said, one in every 50 U.S. kids has autism, up from the previous, one in 88. It got a lot of coverage by major news outlets. So why isn't the new rate being used universally? Hardly any big time news sources cite a rate of one in 50.
ONLY A FEW SOURCES TODAY SAY ONE IN 50
Oct 16, 2013, Athens (GA) Banner-Herald: "Autism is a developmental disorder that affects about one in 50 U.S. children ages 6 to 17."
Oct 20, Naperville (IL) Sun: "Autism continues to be one of the fastest growing disorders affecting children in the United States today, as recent statistics from the Center for Disease Control now estimate as many as 1 in 50 children will be diagnosed with autism."
Oct 30, Mountain City (TN) Tomahawk: "One out of 50 children will receive an autism or autism spectrum disorder diagnosis."
Nov 2, Cartersville (GA) Daily Tribune News: "According to the Center of Disease Control and Prevention, autism affects an estimated 1 in 50 school-age children and 1 in 34 boys."
It is much more common to read that the rate is still one in 88 children. I can just do a quick check of Google News and find endless current stories where we're solemnly told the U.S. autism rate is one in 88.
MAINSTREAM NEWS REPORTS STILL SAY ONE IN 88
Oct 6, 2013, Boston Globe: In an autism awareness story, the rate is noted, "Now 1 in 88 children has the disorder - 1 in 54 boys."
Oct 17, Youngstown (OH) Vindicator: As we were told about a new local high school for autistic kids, we were also informed, "Roughly one in 88 births results in an autism diagnosis, according to the latest figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta."
Oct 18, OC Register: In a story titled, More Funding Needed to Study Autism, Dr. Dan Rossignol, a physician and a father of two boys with autism, said, "The CDC indicates the rate of autism is 1 in 88 children (2008 numbers), but I dare say autism is more common now in 2013."
Oct 21, Fox News: In a story about Avonte Oquendo, the missing autistic teen from Queens, we read, "Autism affects one in 88 children in this country, and 40 percent of those children are non-verbal, according to the National Autism Association."
Oct 22, Philly.com: In a piece about drugs being prescribed for children with autism, we were also told, "In the United States, about one in 88 children has been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, which can range from mild, as in Asperger syndrome, to severe autism."
Oct 25, Philly.com: "One in 88 children in the United States has some form of autism, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention."
Oct 27, WebMD: "The authors said that, unlike in the past, autism is no longer deemed to be a rare disorder, with estimates suggesting that some form of autism affects about one in 88 children in the United States."
Nov 1, MyCentralJersey.com: 'Autism effects one in 88 children nationally - with nearly five times as many boys than girls diagnosed - about half of whom have some degree of language impairment.'
My question is, why doesn't everyone agree on the rate?
Shouldn't we know SOMETHING FOR SURE ABOUT AUTISM?
Officially, the cause is a complete mystery. There's no cure. They recently changed the criteria for diagnosing autism once again. Experts still argue over which therapies are really useful. There's no way to prevent autism. And on top of this, they're unsure what the real rate is.
The truth is, we are hopelessly conditioned not to expect any real answers. Autism is now an accepted part of childhood.
So, the autism rate is one in 50 AND one in 88.
The increase is real AND it's better diagnosing of something that's always been around.
Autism is solely genetic AND its cause is environmental (and there are so many possible triggers, we may never know anything for sure).
Depending on the source, autism can be any number of different things.
THE ONLY THING EVERYONE SEEMS TO AGREE ON IS THAT AUTISM IS NOT A CRISIS. WE ARE NEVER ALARMED ABOUT AUTISM.
Anne Dachel is Media Editor for Age of Autism.