Autism rate soaring among US schoolchildren, reports CDC

Robin Wulffson MD's picture
autism, rate, increase, diagnosis, treatment

According to a new survey released on March 20 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1 in 50 U.S. schoolchildren have autism, surpassing a previous federal estimate for the disorder. The 1 in 50 rate mean at least 1 million children have autism.

The CDC notes that the new statistics do not mean autism is occurring more often; rather, it suggests that doctors are diagnosing autism more frequently, especially in children with milder problems. A previous CDC report estimated that 1 in 88 schoolchildren were autistic; however, that study had a more rigorous definition of the disorder and reviewed medical and school records. The new study is based on a national phone survey of parents. For decades, the definition of autism comprised children with severe language, intellectual difficulties, social impairments, and unusual, repetitious behaviors. However, the definition has gradually expanded and now includes milder, related conditions.

The new statistics are important because government officials look at how common each illness or disorder is when weighing how to spend limited public health funds. The new numbers are derived from a national phone survey of more than 95,000 parents in 2011 and 2012. CDC officials noted that less than 25% of the parents contacted agreed to answer questions; therefore, it is likely that those with autistic children were more interested than other parents in participating in a survey on children’s health. Despite that, the government officials believe that the survey provides a valid snapshot of how many families are affected by autism, explained Stephen Blumberg, the CDC report’s lead author.

The previous study that estimated that 1 in 88 children had autism also had limitation. It was conducted in 2008, focused on 14 states, and included only children eight years old. Clarification of the issue may occur next year when updated figures based on medical and school records will become available. Currently, physicians have been looking for autism at younger and younger ages, and experts have tended to believe most diagnoses are made in children by age eight. However, the new study found significant proportions of children were diagnosed at older ages. In addition, doctors dealing with autism are evaluating children with milder forms of the condition such as a degree of speech delay or limited social difficulties. They are finding that despite having milder symptoms, these children are experiencing increasing difficulties as school becomes more demanding and social situations grow more complex.

Symptoms of autism:

  • Most parents of autistic children suspect that something is wrong by the time the child is 18 months old and seek help by the time the child is age two. Children with autism typically have difficulties in:
  • Pretend play
  • Social interactions
  • Verbal and nonverbal communication
  • Some children with autism appear normal before age 1 or 2 and then suddenly “regress” and lose language or social skills they had previously gained. This is called the regressive type of autism.

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People with autism may:

  • Be overly sensitive in sight, hearing, touch, smell, or taste (for example, they may refuse to wear “itchy” clothes and become distressed if they are forced to wear the clothes)
  • Have unusual distress when routines are changed
  • Perform repeated body movements
  • Show unusual attachments to objects
  • The symptoms may vary from moderate to severe.

Communication problems may include:

  • Cannot start or maintain a social conversation
  • Communicates with gestures instead of words
  • Develops language slowly or not at all
  • Does not adjust gaze to look at objects that others are looking at
  • Does not refer to self correctly (for example, says “you want water” when the child means “I want water”)
  • Does not point to direct others’ attention to objects (occurs in the first 14 months of life)
  • Repeats words or memorized passages, such as commercials
  • Uses nonsense rhyming

Social interaction:

  • Does not make friends
  • Does not play interactive games
  • Is withdrawn
  • May not respond to eye contact or smiles, or may avoid eye contact
  • May treat others as if they are objects
  • Prefers to spend time alone, rather than with others
  • Shows a lack of empathy

Response to sensory information:

  • Does not startle at loud noises
  • Has heightened or low senses of sight, hearing, touch, smell, or taste
  • May find normal noises painful and hold hands over ears
  • May withdraw from physical contact because it is overstimulating or overwhelming
  • Rubs surfaces, mouths or licks objects
  • Seems to have a heightened or low response to pain


  • Doesn’t imitate the actions of others
  • Prefers solitary or ritualistic play
  • Shows little pretend or imaginative play


  • “Acts up” with intense tantrums
  • Gets stuck on a single topic or task (perseveration)
  • Has a short attention span
  • Has very narrow interests
  • Is overactive or very passive
  • Shows aggression to others or self
  • Shows a strong need for sameness
  • Uses repetitive body movements

Reference: CDC


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