Skip to main content

Searching for the why behind rising autism rate

By Catherine Lord, Special to CNN
April 1, 2012 -- Updated 2108 GMT (0508 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A new government study shows that rate of autism has increased
  • Catherine Lord: It's striking that increase is uneven in terms of region, gender, race and ethnicity
  • She says researchers are trying to find out the reason behind rising rate
  • Lord: For families that may have a child with autism, be persistent in seeking help

Editor's note: Catherine Lord is the director of the Center for Autism and the Developing Brain at N.Y.-Presbyterian Hospital and its affiliated medical schools, Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and Weill Cornell Medical College.

(CNN) -- This week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released its newest study on the rate of autism among 8-year-olds, showing that 1 in 88 has some form of the disorder. Previously, it was 1 in 110. Does the new figure indicate that we are seeing an epidemic of autism, as some have speculated?

At this point, it's not clear.

One possibility is that we are seeing the result of better detection rather than a real surge in autism.

Catherine Lord
Catherine Lord

However, there are some striking parts about the study, which used data from 2008 collected in 14 sites across the United States. The rate of autism increased by more than 45% from 2002 to 2008 in numerous sites. It was a larger and more consistent increase than from 2002 to 2006. Also intriguing is that the increase was very uneven in terms of geography, gender, race and ethnicity.

Some sites had nearly five times as many children with autism as others. In several sites, almost 1 in 33 8-year-old boys were diagnosed with autism. This seems difficult to believe, particularly when these sites had smaller samples and children with less severe intellectual disabilities.

One wonders if some sites became part of the study because of a long-term commitment to autism services, and this had drawn certain families to live nearby, resulting in an increase in the frequency of diagnoses made by local medical centers or educational programs.

But since the children didn't just meet the CDC study criteria for autistic characteristics -- 80% of them had autistic diagnosis from community physicians -- it may be that there is truly a higher rate of autism. Granted, the children were not actually seen by CDC researchers, so it's possible that the methods of diagnosis varied among the sites.

So, what are the implications of the study? The CDC researchers are aware that it's critical to identify the sources of variability in their data. For example, why were nearly twice as many children diagnosed with autism in Utah than in Colorado or Arizona? If the rates are really increasing, does it mean that many more children, particularly those from ethnic or racial minorities who are often missed, could have autism and we just don't know yet? If we do a better job of identifying children with autism, the rate will certainly continue to increase. How do we address this issue, which is not unique to autism?

Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, commented that the most useful approach right now is to assume that there is an increase in autism and try to figure out why this is happening. Since we know the disorder is a neurobiological condition, could it be caused by environmental factors? Many researchers are trying to find out.

Regardless of all the unanswered questions, we should keep in mind that autism is a common condition. More children need autism services than ever before. We need cost-effective ways to identify the disorder at early ages, provide adequate support and work with affected families to help their children transition to adulthood.

For families concerned that their child might have autism, it's important to be persistent in seeking help. The study suggests that children with autism in some parts of the country are much more likely to be recognized than in other parts, so seek the best resources possible and do not give up until you are sure. It may be that your child does not have autism since the disorder overlaps with various other common conditions such as delayed language ability and attention deficit disorder. Far more children don't have autism than do.

With world autism awareness day coming up on Monday, there are many reasons to hope for a brighter future for children and adults who have autism. Despite the concerns about rising autism rates, more services and treatments are available, and they will get even better.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Catherine Lord.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 27, 2014 -- Updated 0127 GMT (0927 HKT)
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1617 GMT (0017 HKT)
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
December 27, 2014 -- Updated 2327 GMT (0727 HKT)
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
December 25, 2014 -- Updated 0633 GMT (1433 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 0335 GMT (1135 HKT)
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2115 GMT (0515 HKT)
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1811 GMT (0211 HKT)
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 1808 GMT (0208 HKT)
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 2239 GMT (0639 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT