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 44 children in the U.S. is on the autism spectrum.  

2. What are the findings of the report?

Key findings include:

  • One in 44 children or about 2.3% of 8-year-old children in the U.S. was diagnosed with ASD in 2018, a nearly 24% percent increase over 2016 when the estimate was 1 in 54. 
  • While the CDC report found no difference in the overall prevalence rates by race and ethnicity, the prevalence of ASD among Hispanic children was lower compared to the White or Black children in multiple sites. This finding indicates barriers in ASD diagnosis for Hispanic children.
  • Further, Black children with ASD were more likely to have lower IQ scores compared to White or Hispanic children. This indicates that only more severe forms of ASD are being identified among Black children compared to White children and points to existing disparities and barriers.
  • For the first time, the 8-year-old report estimated the prevalence of ASD among American 
    Indian/Alaskan Native population. The prevalence of ASD was estimated to be 29 per 1,000 
    children. 
  • 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 60 in Missouri to a high of 1 in 26 in California. 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 24% increase in prevalence which shows progress in awareness and advocacy for early identification and diagnosis but also reiterates the need for a significant increase in funding for autism research and services to be provided throughout the lifespan. 

4. What is the research behind this report?

The report is based on the active surveillance across 11 monitoring sites in the United States for 8-year-old and 4-year-old children in 2018.

5. Why are the numbers from 2018?

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 2020) were from 2016. 

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 60 in Missouri to a high of 1 in 26 in California. 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. 

For a detailed analysis state-by-state, go to the ADDM Network Site Snapshots Overview.

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 include the increased awareness of autism symptoms and screening as well as the diagnostic changes and data collection approach.

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.

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

While the CDC report found no difference in the overall prevalence rates by race and ethnicity, the prevalence of ASD among Hispanic children was lower compared to the White or Black children in multiple sites. This finding indicates barriers in ASD diagnosis for Hispanic children. 

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?

Research shows that early screening and timely intervention can improve a child’s overall development and future outcomes. We continue to work on closing the diagnosis gap, with a special focus on high need, underserved area populations by empowering parents, 
educating physicians and increasing access to interventions and supports.

Here are a few of our recent accomplishments: 

  • Initiated a new bilingual public service campaign in collaboration with the Ad Council to help close the diagnosis gap, especially in minority populations. As a result, we increased the number of people accessing the M-CHAT autism screening questionnaire by 15 percent year over year.
  • Created Caregiver Quick Tips six-part video series based on Caregivers Skills Training to help parents and caregivers use play and everyday solutions to better support their autistic child’s development, viewed more than 4,000 times in first four months following launch.
  • Successfully advocated autism benefits coverage for an additional 3.4 million Americans, bringing the total number of covered individuals to 207 million or an estimated 65 percent of the U.S. population. 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 to create a world where 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:

16. How can I get involved with Autism Speaks?  

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

We also have the Autism Speaks Advocacy Ambassador Program, which is a grassroots program designed to build relationships between constituents and legislators at the federal level. 

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.