Study finds high rate of autism

`Rigorous' survey finds 1 in 150 8-year-olds in Md. are affected

February 09, 2007|By Chris Emery | Chris Emery,SUN REPORTER

The most comprehensive study of autism to date shows that in Maryland and 13 other states the disorder is common and often diagnosed too late for effective therapies, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

By analyzing youngsters' school and health records, the CDC found that one out of every 150 8-year-olds demonstrated symptoms of autism, a slightly higher rate than previous studies.

The overall figure held as well for Maryland, where the incidence rate of so-called autism spectrum disorders was in the middle of the 14 states surveyed.

"Our estimates are becoming better and more consistent, though we can't yet tell if there is a true increase in ASDs or if the changes are the result of our better studies," said the CDC's director, Dr. Julie L. Gerberding.

"We do know, however, that these disorders are affecting too many children."

Doctors and parents of autistic children seized on the figures as confirmation that autism is a serious national problem.

"It's enormous. This suggests everyone is going to know someone who has a kid with autism," said Dr. Gary Goldstein, a pediatric neurologist and president and chief executive of the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, which specializes in children's developmental disabilities.

CDC researcher Catherine Rice cautioned against drawing national conclusions from the data because the states and subdivisions surveyed were not demographically representative of the entire country. But she said the consistency of the results from state to state was impressive.

The study, which looked at autism rates in 2000 and 2002, also found Maryland children in the middle when it came to the age of diagnosis. The most recent survey, in 2002, looked at 407,578 8-year-olds in the 14 studied areas. On average, Maryland children were diagnosed with autism at 5 years of age - two years after parents typically begin to notice tell-tale symptoms of the disorder.

Goldstein said he is concerned by delayed diagnosis because children often benefit most from therapies when they are 2 and 3 years old.

"There was a three-year lag between parents coming in and saying there is a problem and the children actually being diagnosed" he said. "They missed an important window of opportunity."

The researchers also looked at services available to autistic children in public schools. "People have historically criticized the availability of special education," Goldstein said. "But in kids with autism, if it's done right, it really helps."

In 2002, some 74 percent of autistic children in Maryland received special education services in public schools, the highest proportion in the survey. The lowest was Colorado, where just 31 percent received services.

Goldstein said the CDC data provide the most reliable estimate ever of autism rates in the United States - largely because researchers analyzed individual school and medical records to determine if children fit the criteria for an autism diagnosis.

Previous studies found that 1 in every 166 children was autistic, he said, but their methodology was less rigorous. "This is the first time it was collected in a really uniform manner," he said. "This is the benchmark."

The new study found that Alabama had the lowest rate of autism at 1 in 303 children in the age group. New Jersey had the highest rates, with one in every 94 children.

There was no indication of why one state might be different from another - researchers said there could be enivronmental causes, or just more through screening in some jurisdictions than others.

Autism spectrum disorders in children are characterized by difficulty with social interaction and communication - often to the point where children are totally withdrawn from family and friends.

"They do not perceive the world the way you or I do," said Elisa Hartman, of Towson, whose 6-year-old son Benjamin is autistic. "They need someone facilitating their interaction with the world."

She first noticed the symptoms of the disorder in Benjamin when he was 2 years old. "He wasn't interested in the kinds of toys that other kids were interested in," she said.

Benjamin became fascinated with making tubes out of paper and other materials, and he would play with the tubes for hours. He never pointed or waved goodbye - other common signs of the disorder.

She said therapies have helped him develop physical and social skills, but he still has difficulty communicating. "You're doing all of the questioning, and he's only giving answers," she said. "And when he does ask a question he asks into the air, not looking at you."

She said her 2-year-old daughter, Zoey, has shown no signs of the disorder. (Boys are four times as likely to have an ASD than girls.)

Goldstein said some parents have blamed mercury-based preservatives sometimes used in vaccines for their children's autism but studies have found no scientific evidence to support the claim.

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