New data shows an increase in kids diagnosed with autism in the U.S., but experts believe the numbers are a result of better awareness and widely available services
New data shows that more and more U.S. children are being diagnosed with autism. But experts stress that they don’t believe more children have autism now than in past years — they believe the higher numbers are closer to reflecting the true number of children with autism in America, who are no longer going undiagnosed because of a lack of awareness and services.
The new report, released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday, shows that one in 44 U.S. kids is now diagnosed with autism by age 8. The analysis comes from 2018 data from nearly a dozen states, and compares the new rate to one found in 2016: That one in 54 kids was diagnosed at that time. The report reflects an ongoing trend: U.S. autism diagnosis numbers have been rising for a number of years. But experts don’t think it’s because more children are being affected; instead, they think the rising numbers reflect better awareness of autism, and better access to healthcare and services across the country.
A separate CDC report that was also released Thursday showed that children in 2018 were 50 percent more likely to be diagnosed with autism by age 4 than children in 2014. According to experts, that data shows that children are being diagnosed more often, but also typically at earlier ages than ever before.
“There is some progress being made and the earlier kids get identified, the earlier they can access services that they might need to improve their developmental outcome,” CDC researcher and report co-author Kelly Shaw told TODAY.
The report’s authors stressed that the numbers they found still might not be representative of exactly how prevalent autism is in children across the entire country. For their numbers, they looked at counties in 11 states, some of which included bigger cities, where autism diagnosis rates tend to be higher than they are in rural areas — most likely because people living in cities have better access to testing and other healthcare services. The rates the researchers found varied quite a bit — one in 26 children was diagnosed in California, where there is an abundance of autism services, compared to just one in 60 in Missouri, where services aren’t as accessible for many.
Overall, the researchers found that autism rates were similar across racial lines, and in some places, rates were higher among low-income families. This is the opposite of the trend researchers have seen, which is that autism rates tend to be higher in families that have higher income, and thus better healthcare and the ability to afford other services. Experts say this likely reflects better coverage for autism services by Medicaid and private health insurance companies.