Autism on the Rise? What You Should Know

A new study of a group of 8-year-olds from 11 sites around the U.S. showed a nearly 20 percent increase in child autism rates from 2018 to 2020. The report has brought with it some questions about whether the disorder is actually on the rise or if awareness and diagnosis have simply improved ― or if it is the result of a combination of factors.

Either way, say experts with Baptist Health, the focus needs to be on ensuring that children with an autism diagnosis and their families receive the services and support to meet their needs.

The report, released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) just before April’s Autism Acceptance Month, showed that in the population of 8-year-olds studied, one in 36 are now diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a diverse group of conditions that affect the development of the brain. That’s up from one in 44 in 2018. The numbers have risen steadily since monitoring in multiple U.S. cities began two decades ago.

“There have been some changes in the methodology of the study,” says Carmen de Lerma, M.D., director of the South Miami Hospital Child Development Center, part of Baptist Health. “Autism, however, remains common across all groups of children, and this underscores the need for accessible screening.”

Common Signs of ASD

Children on the autism spectrum have varying degrees of problems with communication and social interaction. They may have persistent difficulty with speech and language communication, trouble regulating their emotions and adapting to change, be overly sensitive to sounds, exhibit repetitive language or demonstrate repetitive movement, such as hand flapping, twirling or other motions. Many also prefer to play by themselves or be by themselves.

Dr. de Lerma says that thanks to the growing awareness of autism, parents, teachers (including preschool teachers), pediatricians and others who see children are often the first to notice something is off. “There may be no social or emotional reciprocity,” she explains. “The child may not respond to their name, return eye contact or acknowledge other people. These are reasons to seek help and ask questions.”

Know Developmental Milestones

She urges parents to become familiar with developmental milestones. The CDC’s Learn the Sign. Act Early. website offers good, free information. In addition, discuss any concerns with your pediatrician and listen to preschool or elementary school teachers who bring up potential communication or behavior problems.

There is no single diagnostic test for autism, and while not every child with ASD is diagnosed at a very young age, early intervention allows specialists to develop tailored therapy to address the individual child’s needs. The team at the Child Development Center, which has been offering care for the last 30 years, includes developmental pediatricians, occupational and physical therapists, speech/language pathologists and social workers.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends autism-specific screening for all children at 18 and 24 months. “We would like to see the child as soon as you begin noticing that they are not progressing in language skills or socializing at the level you would expect for their age,” Dr. de Lerma says.

She is particularly interested in following data from the CDC autism study as it moves forward from the COVID-19 pandemic years. “This study is for data collected pre-COVID, from 2018 to 2020,” she says. “Since then, we have seen the drop in school test scores. We know people put off health screenings. With restrictions in place and people not leaving their homes as much, it’s possible that children were not evaluated for autism as frequently.”

The study also revealed ― for the first time among children age 8  ― a higher prevalence in races/ethnic groups, including Black, Hispanic and Asian/Pacific Islander children, compared to white children. Again, it’s not clear whether there has been a more significant jump in the number of cases of autism in these groups, or if access to testing has improved.

“Corroboration is important in research, and expanded studies help us better understand and treat autism,” Dr. de Lerma says. “And for parents, it’s important to have that conversation with teachers and physicians if you have a feeling that something is wrong. We are here to help.”

Healthcare that Cares

With internationally renowned centers of excellence, 12 hospitals, more than 27,000 employees, 4,000 physicians and 200 outpatient centers, urgent care facilities and physician practices spanning across Miami-Dade, Monroe, Broward and Palm Beach counties, Baptist Health is an anchor institution of the South Florida communities we serve.

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