by Brenda Baletti, Ph.D., Childrens Health Defense:
One in 36 (2.8%) 8-year-old children — 4% of boys and 1% of girls — have an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), based on an analysis of data from 2020, published today by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The latest findings, reported in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, show an increase from the last report, which found 1 in 44 8-year-olds (2.3%) had autism in 2018.
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Since the CDC started collecting the data, prevalence estimates have skyrocketed from 1 in 150 in 2000, to today’s estimate of 1 in 36 children.
The trend has persisted for decades. Autism prevalence in the 1990s, which was 1 in 1,000 children, already represented a tenfold increase over the condition’s estimated prevalence in the 1970s.
Commenting on today’s report, Mark Blaxill, from the Executive Leadership Team at Health Choice, told The Defender:
“As the American culture wars have intensified, the harsh reality of the autism epidemic has been tucked away into obscurity as attention has turned to a whole new set of health concerns.
“Today’s new report from the CDC’s ADDM [Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring] Network places the latest ASD rate at 1 in 36 children born in 2012, but that’s not even the largest number out there (a recent survey using NHIS data reported a rate of 1 in 29 children in 2020).”
A second CDC report on 4-year-old children, also released today, emphasized that in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, 4-year-old children were less likely to be evaluated for or identified with ASD than 8-year-olds of the same age.
Prior to the pandemic, 4-year-old children were diagnosed with autism at even higher rates than the 8-year-old cohort.
For the first time since the CDC began doing these studies, both studies found autism prevalence was higher among Black, Hispanic and Asian/Pacific Islander children than among White and biracial children. ASD prevalence among these groups increased 30% between 2018 and 2020.
The prevalence report suggested these numbers “might reflect improved screening, awareness, and access to services among historically underserved groups.”
Commenting on the CDC’s assertion that children of color have higher rates of autism than white children because of improved screening and awareness, Sallie Bernard, co-founder and board president of SafeMinds, told The Defender:
“That does not explain why their rate is higher than white children. As a group, no racial or ethnic minority here gets better assessment and diagnosis than white children, so to explain the disparity in the rate now as due to better assessment for minorities is just ludicrous.”
Conclusory statements attributing growth in autism numbers to “more awareness and a wider ability of services” is part of a long-term trend among public health officials and the media.
Most autistic children were found to either have an intellectual disability (37.9%) or to be on the borderline for having one (23.5%).
Black children with autism were far more likely than white children to have a co-occurring intellectual disability, which the report said might stem from “underascertainment of ASD among Black children without intellectual disability.”
The recommendation for “public health action” is to develop “enhanced infrastructure to provide equitable diagnostic, treatment, and support services for all children with ASD.”
Bernard agreed that there is a need for greater infrastructure and support. “The services and supports have been lacking forever. And now if you have a four-fold increase [in ASD], it is going to be four times worse,” she said.
“Now they’ve diagnosed that Black children have such a high rate of intellectual disability and borderline intellectual disability. That’s a group of people with autism that have the toughest time in life. For families, it’s so hard. And so they absolutely need more attention.
“But it doesn’t explain the social determinants of health. For that, we need environmental justice. You have to ask what are they exposed to?”
But the report makes no comment on the causes of autism, nor does it offer an explanation for the rising rates beyond increased testing.
The Defender asked Bernard whether she thought better testing could be driving the trends. She said:
“There’s been this implication that what’s driving the rates is the [ASD diagnosis] of the lower support needs individuals, that we used to call Asperger’s. Or that perhaps it is the folks who were really really impacted and have very profound intellectual disability that’s driving the trends. Or, now, that there is better detection among racial and ethnic minorities that have been marginalized.
“But when you look at the trends, no matter how you break it down, autism is rising in all of these groups and it has been since they started taking the data 20 years ago.
“It’s hard to believe that when the experts went out and did their epidemiology studies and found lower rates in the past that they would have missed out on 3 of 4 kids on the spectrum.”
Toby Rogers, Ph.D., had this to say about the CDC’s claims that better testing is behind the growing number of autism cases:
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