The autism rate in the United States skyrocketed to 1 in 88 children in 2008, a 78 percent increase over 2002, according to a new report by the Centers for Disease Control.
In 2002, about 1 in 156 children had autism spectrum disorders, according to the report. The agency numbers take into account statistics from 14 centers nationwide. The agency attributes the increase to better diagnostic tools and awareness of the disorders, which can affect children's learning, social skills, and behavior.
"Doctors are getting better at diagnosing autism," Thomas Frieden, director of the CDC, told reporters on a conference call Wednesday. "But there are many children and families who need help."
There is a striking gender gap in autism—1 in 54 8-year-old boys is diagnosed with the disorder, compared to 1 in 252 girls of the same age. Experts believe that there is a genetic link that predisposes people to autism that may be triggered by environmental factors, although no one can definitively say what those factors are.
"This is a complex condition with many unanswered questions," Frieden said. "We're learning more every day, but we still have a great deal to learn."
Gary Goldstein, president and CEO of the Kennedy Krieger Institute, a Baltimore-based center that supports children with the disease, says the CDC's numbers align with what his institute has been seeing.
"Our referrals are growing at the same rate that these numbers are growing or more," he says. "More people are seeking out care, and it hasn't plateaued for us. I don't know what this number will look like when the CDC comes out with the 2012 numbers."
Goldstein says the disease is likely similar to lung cancer in that certain people are predisposed to it, but environmental factors—like smoking, for lung cancer—can trigger the disease.
"If the rate is truly increasing, then there has to be something in the environment interacting with people who are prone—something that pushes people who are at risk over the edge," he says. "We are beginning to identify the risk genes, but [the genes] don't cause it all by themselves."
Although there is no cure for autism, the CDC and Goldstein say that early diagnosis and behavioral intervention can help make the disease more manageable. According to the CDC, the average age for diagnosis is about 4 years old, but experts say most cases can be diagnosed by 2 years old. Infants who are at risk of autism rarely smile, laugh, or respond to their names, and often experience delayed motor development.
By age 4, "early intervention" might be too late to make a difference. Children who have mild cases of the disorder can often grow out of it.
"If you're diagnosing at 4, you've missed the opportunity for the most productive early intervention," Goldstein says. With no medicines available to treat autistic patients and the disorder rate in boys nearing 2 percent, parents and doctors should vigilantly look for signs of the disease. Early diagnosis, he says, "is our only bet right now."