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Autism Numbers Skyrocket45:36
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Reported autism rates skyrocket – one child in 88 now has an autism diagnosis. One in 54 boys. We’ll take a look behind the sobering numbers.

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The new numbers from the Centers for Disease Control last week on autism were absolutely arresting.  In their latest survey, 1 in 88 American children were found diagnosed with autism and related disorders.  One in 54 American boys, on the autism spectrum.

The numbers were stunning in themselves, and far higher than prevalence rates found just a handful of years ago.  Maybe it’s all about rates of diagnosis.  Or ways of defining autism.  Maybe it’s not.  But it’s got our full attention.

This hour, On Point: how can so many American children have autism?
-Tom Ashbrook

Guests

Max Wiznitzer, a pediatric neurologist at Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital in Cleveland.

Geraldine Dawson, chief science officer for the advocacy group Autism Speaks.

Glen Finland, a writer and mother of an autistic child, her new book is Next Stop: A Memoir. You can read an article about her son, David, which she wrote in the Washington Post here.

Highlights

The new numbers on autism are scary: One in 88 children falls someplace on the autism disorder spectrum, according to the latest from the Centers for Disease Control. “We do have a public health crisis,” said Geraldine Dawson, the chief science officer for the advocacy group Autism Speaks. She called for a coordinated national response, more research, earlier screening, and better treatment.

While broader screening and more awareness are sources for the larger number of new autism diagnoses, that isn’t the full story. The source of 50 percent of new autism cases is of unknown origin, Dawson said, pointing to early research indicating that environmental factors including exposure to pesticides, air pollution, and other factors that could impact brain development and autism.

Others cite the preliminary nature of that research and counter that the jump in autism cases can best be explained by broader awareness and better screening. “20 to 30 years ago, no one knew what autism was. Nowadays, everyone knows what it is,” said pediatric neurologist Max Wiznitzler. “Parents are now walking in with children with any type of developmental disorder and wondering: Is it autism?”

Autism like many other development disorders is a neurological condition, which means that it is diagnosed by behavior and not by, for instance, a biopsy or blood test. Different interpretations can lead to different diagnoses.

“I’m not surprised [at the new numbers]," said Wiznitzer. “Our diagnostic criteria are being applied more liberally, which means it’s a much expanded group of individuals, especially when they are looking at individuals with social impairments. But the other thing is that we’re getting better at identifying them.”

The critical point is to identify developmental disorders, regardless of the final classification both doctors agreed. Indeed, each person with autism is unique from their peers. “As we say in the autism community, once you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism,” said author Glen Finland, whose new memoir Next Stop details her family’s experiences raising an autistic son.

From Tom's Reading List

The New York Times "The new report estimates that in 2008 one child in 88 received one of these diagnoses, known as autism spectrum disorders, by age 8, compared with about one in 110 two years earlier. The estimated rate in 2002 was about one in 155."

NPR "The rapid rise prompted calls to declare the developmental disorder an epidemic. "This is a national emergency in need of a national plan," Mark Roithmayr, president of the advocacy group Autism Speaks, said at a CDC media briefing Thursday."

Excerpt: Next Stop

This program aired on April 2, 2012.

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