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Autism Rates: Understanding the Rise, powered by Nemours Children's Health System

Autism Rates: Understanding the Rise

Autism diagnoses are on the rise, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says in a new report. Autism rates have gone up since 2016, and 1 in 59 U.S. kids have some form of autism (also called “autism spectrum disorder” or “ASD”).

Many parents are asking why — and wondering if they should worry.

What Does the Rise in Autism Rates Mean?

Experts say that the higher autism rates do not mean more and more kids are developing autism. Rather, ways to recognize, diagnose, and treat autism spectrum disorders have greatly improved. Ideally, doctors should look for signs of autism in babies and toddlers at every routine well visit, and perform an autism screening at the 18- and 24-month checkups. However, this may be challenging to accomplish in a busy practice.

The CDC also reports that some groups were previously underdiagnosed. Black and Hispanic populations, for instance, have often had less access to health care services. A CDC official says, “The higher number of black and Hispanic children now being identified with autism could be due to more effective outreach in minority communities and increased efforts to have all children screened for autism so they can get the services they need.”

What Should Parents Watch for?

Because the autism spectrum is so wide, some kids who are affected might have very mild signs that are hard to notice. “It’s important for parents to know what to look for,” says Dr. Diane Treadwell-Deering, director of the new Swank Autism Center at Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children. “The sooner children are diagnosed and begin treatment, the greater their chances for improvement.”

Common signs of autism include:

1. Not meeting developmental milestones.

“In general, babies should babble by 6 months and use two-word phrases by 24 months,” says Dr. Treadwell-Deering. “If kids have normal hearing and don’t start to talk by age 2, that’s a possible red flag for autism.”

2. Making a lot of repetitive sounds or movements.

Children with autism often do unusual repetitive behaviors and aren’t social when doing them. “You might see a baby playing peekaboo, using eye contact, and bursting into a smile — that’s very social,” Dr. Treadwell-Deering explains. “But a child with autism might do the repetitive stuff, but not have the social piece to go along with it.”

3. Not interacting with others.

Children with autism tend to have trouble relating to other people. A lack of interest — or ability — to connect with others may make it hard to make friends.

4. Not understanding language the way other kids do.

Children with autism have trouble picking up on verbal and nonverbal cues. They may stand too close to others or not know when to end a conversation. “They also have trouble with irony, sarcasm, and other social uses of language,” Dr. Treadwell-Deering says. “They may not be good with the ‘give and take’ of conversations.”

Where Can Parents Get Help?

Early intervention is key. If you see any signs of autism or have concerns about your child’s development or abilities, talk with your doctor right away.

The Nemours teams of autism specialists includes psychologists and psychiatrists, child neurologists, neuropsychologists, developmental pediatricians, occupational/speech and language therapists, and applied behavior analysis therapists. They provide compassionate, comprehensive autism evaluations and work with parents to help kids have the brightest, most productive future possible.

To learn more about screening for autism, diagnosis, treatment, and more, contact Nemours at (302) 651-4000.

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Get more in-depth information from Nemours’ experts at KidsHealth.org.

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