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THURSDAY, March 29 (HealthDay News) -- The rate of autism spectrum disorders continues to rise among American children, with one in 88 now receiving such a diagnosis, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Thursday.
That's an increase from the one in 110 estimate released by the CDC just two years ago. The newer data, from 2008, also shows that autism is almost five times more common in boys than girls, with one in 54 boys diagnosed with the condition.
Why the steady uptick in cases? That's not entirely clear, experts said.
About half of the increase is accounted for by better diagnosis, said Mark Roithmayr, president of the national advocacy group Autism Speaks. The reasons for the rest of the increase are not known, he added.
What is known, he said, is that, "very clearly now, there is an autism epidemic in the United States." And the increase in incidence -- about a 23 percent jump every two years -- has been ongoing, he said.
Another expert expressed similar worries.
"It's concerning that there continues to be a steady increase in autism spectrum disorders," said Dr. Andrew Adesman, chief of developmental & behavioral pediatrics at the Steven & Alexandra Children's Medical Center of New York in New Hyde Park.
"This is a significant problem from a public health standpoint," he said. "There is a need for parents and clinicians to identify children with autism spectrum disorder as early as possible in the hopes that it would maximize children's developmental outcome."
Although there are some children with autism who can show significant gains there are many who don't, which highlights the long-term impact of the problem on both individuals and society, Adesman added.
The report was published Thursday in the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
According to the new CDC numbers, the rate of children being diagnosed with autism varies widely by state: From one in 210 in Alabama to one in 47 in Utah. The biggest increase in diagnoses was seen among Hispanics and blacks, according to the report.
The data show that about 11 in every 1,000 8-year-old children have now been diagnosed with autism, a 23 percent increase since the last report in 2009.
One hopeful sign: there are more early diagnoses, which can aid in treatment, experts noted. The CDC said that more children are now being diagnosed by the age of 3. Among children born in 1994, just 12 percent of cases were being diagnosed by that age, but for children born in 2000 that number increased to 18 percent.
Of course, the severity of an autism spectrum disorder can vary depending on the child. About 9 percent of those with autism are what is called "high-functioning," about 44 percent have the most serious form of the condition and 47 percent have various milder forms of autism, Roithmayr noted.
He added that there is a panel, set up by the American Psychiatric Association, that is currently looking at changing the definition of autism. Such a change could affect these numbers and will be included in the next edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the "bible" of psychological disorders used by psychiatrists worldwide.
Shrinking the definition of autism is bound to meet with controversy, however. "It is imperative that DSM5 not exclude anyone on the spectrum," Roithmayr said. "If it does, we are going on a big offensive."
Autism has other costs, too. According to Autism Speaks, the financial burden related to autism has tripled over the past six years. Based on these new numbers, the group estimated that the annual price tag for autism in the United States will reach $137 billion, he said. "This is a national emergency," Roithmayr said, and he believes insurance companies must do more to help parents shoulder the cost of caring for a child affected by autism.
All of this points to the need for more funding for research on the genetic and environmental causes of autism, he added.
The CDC said parents need to act fast if they are worried about their child's development, and discuss their concerns with their doctor and school.
Looking for the Warning Signs of Autism
According to Dr. Rebecca Landa, director of the Center for Autism and Related Disorders at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, signs of concern include:
- Child rarely smiles when approached by caregivers.
- Rarely imitates sounds and movements others make.
- Delayed or infrequent babbling.
- Doesn't consistently respond to his or her name.
- Doesn't gesture by 10 months.
- Shows poor eye contact.
- Doesn't seeks attention often.
- Stiffens arms, hands or legs, or has unusual body movements like rotating the hands on the wrists, uncommon postures or other repetitive behaviors.
- Doesn't not reach toward you when you reach to pick him or her up.
- Delays in motor development, including delayed rolling over, pushing up and crawling.
For more information on autism, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.