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Autism Prevalence Rises to 1 in 88

March 29, 2012

Today the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updated its estimate of autism prevalence in the United States to 1 in 88 children (1 in 54 boys and 1 in 252 girls). By comparison, this is more children than are affected by diabetes, AIDS, cancer, cerebral palsy, cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy or Down syndrome – combined.*

The new numbers - based on a 2008 snapshot of 14 monitoring sites - represent a 78 percent increase in autism over the previous five years. They represent a ten-fold (1,000 percent) increase in reported prevalence over the last four decades.

“The CDC’s new estimate of autism prevalence demands that we recognize autism as a public health emergency warranting immediate attention,” says Autism Speaks Chief Science Officer Geri Dawson, Ph.D. “More than ever, these numbers compel us to redouble our investment in the research that can reveal causes, validate effective treatments and guide the effective delivery of services to all our communities,” 

“The CDC numbers are alarming, yet they don’t begin to tell the story of the real families, real individuals struggling every day,” adds Autism Speaks President Mark Roithmayr. “From fighting to get a diagnosis and secure appropriate educational services and therapies, to trying to manage tremendous financial and emotional burdens or find a satisfying job opportunity, families are engaged in a daily battle against this disorder. We need to marshal the same resources and attention that the government has devoted to other diseases and disorders and finally make this a fair fight.”

Improved detection and reporting is likely contributing to the increase in prevalence, experts agree. However, exposure to factors that increase risk for autism cannot be ruled out. Recent research indicates that environmental, or nongenetic, factors can influence autism risk in those genetically predisposed to the disorder – particularly during prenatal development.

Other research suggests that the true prevalence of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) is still higher than the new CDC figures. This is because the CDC estimate is based on a review of records that gauge how many children are currently receiving autism-related services. A recent study directly screening grade-schoolers in South Korea revealed that as many as two-thirds of children with ASD were undiagnosed and missed by a review of autism-service records. This study, funded by Autism Speaks, estimated autism prevalence in South Korean to be 1 in 38 children. Autism Speaks is currently collaborating with the CDC to test a similar direct-screening approach to better estimate autism prevalence in the United States.

"We know early diagnosis matters, but early diagnosis without access to treatment means nothing,” Dr. Dawson says. “A majority of children don't get the treatment and services they need and deserve.  We have to address all of this as we move forward."

To date, Autism Speaks has funded over $173 million in scientific research to investigate the causes, diagnosis and treatments of autism. This research continues to explore the role of a wide range of risk factors including birth complications, a mother’s diet and nutrition prior to conception and during pregnancy and toxic exposures during pregnancy and infancy. (More information on these research grants is available here.)

Autism Speaks is also supporting projects and initiatives designed to better understand prevalence, economic costs, access to services and new approaches to the diagnosis of autism in the United States and internationally.

* Comparison based on the prevalence statistics of the Child & Adolescent Health Measurement Initiative