CDC Prevalence Update FAQ

1. What are the results of the CDC autism prevalence update?

This week, the CDC updated its biennial report of autism prevalence among the nation’s children, estimating that 1 in 54 children in the U.S. is on the autism spectrum.  

2. What are the findings of the report?

Key findings include:

  • One in 54 children had a diagnosis of ASD by age 8 in 2016, a nearly 10 percent increase over 2014 when the estimate was 1 in 59.
  • While the CDC found no difference in prevalence rates between black and white children, a gap remains in prevalence among Hispanic children, indicating a need to expand screening and intervention among this group. Further, black and Hispanic children identified with autism received evaluations at older ages than similar white children, again indicating that more needs to be done in this area.
  • The number of children who had a developmental screening by age 3 increased from 74 percent to 84 percent, a sign of progress toward earlier and more consistent screening by providers. 
  • Boys are four times as likely to be diagnosed as girls, holding steady from previous reports. This indicates the need for more research to understand the gap in prevalence and ensure girls on the spectrum are receiving the care they need. 
  • Significant differences remain in the frequency of autism diagnosis between the CDC’s monitoring sites. These range from a low of 1 in 76 in Colorado to a high of 1 in 32 in New Jersey. This may be due to how autism is diagnosed and documented in different communities.

3. What do these results mean for the autism community?

The report reflects a continued increase in the prevalence of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in the U.S., showing an increase of nearly 10 percent since 2018, when the estimate was 1 in 59 children. 

4. What is the research behind this report?

The report is based on analysis of 2016 medical and/or school records of 8-year-olds from 11 monitoring sites across the United States

5. Why are the numbers from 2016?

It takes several years to gather and analyze the records and to go through the review process. The numbers from the previous prevalence report (in 2018) were from 2014.

6. Why is prevalence higher in some states than in others?

Significant differences remain in the frequency of autism diagnosis between the CDC’s monitoring sites. These range from a low of 1 in 76 in Colorado to a high of 1 in 32 in New Jersey. This may be due to how autism is diagnosed and documented in different communities. 

This likely reflects state and regional differences in children’s access to autism screening as well as differences in the CDC’s access to the school and medical records used to estimate prevalence.

Click here for a detailed analysis of autism prevalence state-by-state.

7. Why are there more cases of autism?

We know there is an increase in the number of people with autism, but the reasons for some of the increases are unknown. That is why increased research into the causes of autism is so critical. We do know some factors that have contributed to the increase:

  • Awareness of autism symptoms and screening has increased
  • Diagnostic changes – what had been previously diagnosed as Asperger’s syndrome, autistic disorder or PDD-NOS now fall under the autism spectrum disorder umbrella, resulting in a more accurate diagnosis for people with autism
  • Parental age – research has shown an increased risk for autism diagnosis in children with older parents

8. Do the results reflect an increase in early screenings?

The new report demonstrates real progress in early screening and diagnosis, the result of more than a decade of awareness and advocacy work by Autism Speaks and other organizations. The number of children who had a developmental screening by age 3 increased from 74 percent to 84 percent, a sign of potential progress toward earlier and more consistent screening by healthcare providers. 

9. What is the difference in prevalence rates between black, white and Hispanic children?

For the first time the CDC found no difference in prevalence rates between black and white children, but a gap remains in prevalence among Hispanic children, indicating a need to expand screening and intervention among this group. Further, black and Hispanic children identified with autism received evaluations at older ages than white children, again indicating that more needs to be done in this area.

10. What is the difference in prevalence rates between boys and girls?

Boys are four times as likely to be diagnosed as girls, holding steady from previous reports. This indicates the need for more research to understand the gap in prevalence and ensure girls on the spectrum are receiving the care they need.

11. Do vaccines play a role?

Each family has a unique experience with an autism diagnosis, and for some it corresponds with the timing of their child’s vaccinations. At the same time, over the last two decades there has been extensive research to determine whether there is a link between childhood vaccinations and autism. The result of this research is that vaccines do not cause autism.

12. How is Autism Speaks supporting the increase in early screenings?

Core to our mission since our founding has been to increase screening and lower the age of diagnosis, especially in minority populations. The narrowing of the diagnosis gap among black, Hispanic and white children is a testament to work of thousands of Autism Speaks advocates and volunteers and community partners, as well as campaign partners Ad Council and BBDO whose award-winning work made this possible. It shows that when non-profits make an issue a priority, change happens. 

We are proud to work together with autistic people and their families, healthcare and service providers, and partners around the world to help people with autism get their diagnosis as early as possible, support early intervention services and best practices in autism care, and find ways to support their development throughout the life span.  

As the prevalence of autism continues to rise, we are as steadfast as ever in our work to achieve our vision: that all people with autism can reach their full potential. 

13. Does Autism Speaks help fund research to increase early screenings?

Autism Speaks is working tirelessly to fuel research that would allow earlier diagnosis and intervention; advocacy with and for the autism community to ensure access to care; and programs and services that allow our constituents to reach their full potential.

Despite the progress made, we know that more is needed. We will continue to champion the importance of early screening and intervention for all children, as we know this leads to better outcomes and increases the opportunity for people with autism to thrive.

14. How does Autism Speak work with policymakers to increase research?

Autism Speaks calls on legislators, public health agencies and the National Institutes of Health to advance research to better understand the continued increase in prevalence and the co-occurring medical conditions that may accompany autism. 

In doing so, the organization urges policy makers to double the federal funding of autism research, in accordance with the guidance of the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee (IACC), and to advance policies that better provide services and supports for early intervention, education, transition to adulthood, employment and community living.  

15. What resources does Autism Speaks offer for early diagnosis? 

The Autism Response Team is available to respond to questions at 1-888-AUTISM2 (1-888-288-4762), en Español at 1-888-772-9050 and via email at help@autismspeaks.org.
Autism Speaks also offers the following resources:

  • The Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers (M-Chat), an online checklist for screening children between 16 and 30 months of age (English and Spanish)
  • Learn the signs of autism on our website (English and Spanish)
  • The Autism Speaks First Concern to Action Roadmap (English and Spanish)
  • The Autism Speaks 100 Day Kit for Newly Diagnosed Families (English and Spanish)
  • Our latest campaign with the Ad Council can be found at ScreenforAutism.org. This provides information about the signs of autism. (English and Spanish)

Visit autismspeaks.org to learn more about how we help people with autism, our vision for the future and the resources we provide.

16. How can I get involved with Autism Speaks?  

Eighty-five cents of every dollar helps fund critical research, advocacy, programs and services for people with autism. Please consider giving today at www.autismspeaks.org.

The CDC report was released in advance of April’s World Autism Month and World Autism Awareness Day (April 2), which Autism Speaks dedicates to increasing global understanding and acceptance of people with autism. Click here to engage in this effort to create a kinder, more inclusive world.

17. Where can I find more details about the findings and analysis of the CDC autism prevalence update report?

The entire report is available to view at the Community Report on Autism page.

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You can also reach the Autism Response Team by phone or email: 888-288-4762, en Espanol 888-772-7050, or help@autismspeaks.org.