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Why Autism Rates Are Increasing in the U.S.

According to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), autism is on the rise in the US. Currently, one in 59 children has autism—an increase over the previous numbers (released in 2016) of one in 68 children. Overall, these numbers represent a 15 percent increase since 2016, and a 150 percent increase since 2000.

Autism advocates agree that one reason for this increase is the recent heightened awareness of autism and its symptoms. According to Thomas Frazier, chief science officer for the advocacy group Autism Speaks, other factors for the increase may include the rise in survival rates of premature babies (who are at a high risk for autism), and the fact that people are waiting longer to have children (older parents are at a higher risk of having autistic children). Others point to an increase in diagnosis of those who are on the low end of the autism spectrum disorder (ASD) whereas in past studies only more pronounced cases were included.

Experts also believe that both genetics and the environment may be contributing to the condition in kids. Parents who have a child on the autism spectrum are eight percent more likely to have another child with ASD, according to WebMD. Pesticides have also been linked to autism, even those banned years ago. Other pollutants may be contributing as well, such as PCB—chemicals released in the environment from plastics, electrical equipment and other materials. Neurology Advisor reports that “Children exposed to high levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in utero may have an increased risk of developing autism.”

While there may be a number of reasons for the increase, the rising numbers are important, according to Craig Newschaffer, a professor at Drexel University School of Public Health in Philadelphia. “We thought autism was a very rare occurrence, and it’s clear that it’s not,” he told WebMD.

Since the condition is becoming more common, it’s important that parents are aware of the signs and seek a diagnosis as early as possible.

Autism: The Importance of Early Diagnosis

Autism (also known as autism spectrum disorder) is the clinical diagnosis for a range of developmental disabilities that generally involve difficulties in communication and social/interactive skills. Autism is known as a spectrum condition, which means that it affects each individual differently and at varying degrees, and manifests itself in a wide range of communicative and interactive disorders.

Some of these disorders include mild to severe communication and language disorders, as well as a disinclination to play, communicate, respond to, or even smile at other people. Likewise, a child with autism may seem apathetic toward things that would typically interest children and adults who do not have the condition.

Unfortunately, according to the CDC report, only 42 percent of the autistic children in the study received a diagnosis by the time they were four years old. According to the experts, it’s crucial for parents to start tracking the achievement milestones in their children’s lives at an early age—especially milestones in speech, interaction, and communication. This way, if there are any developmental delays or impairments, they can be quickly identified so that parents and children can receive the help and services they need.

Symptoms of Autism

These symptoms can be indicative of autism in children:

• Delays in learning to speak or use language

• Motor mannerisms—such as flapping hands or twirling objects

• Lack of eye contact

• Little or no interest in peer relationships

• Repetitive language

• Fixation on parts of objects

• Lack of spontaneous and/or make-believe play

• Unusual or sing-song tone of voice

• Apathetic behavior

• Difficulty in following conversations

If your child is exhibiting these behaviors, it’s important to discuss this with your pediatrician.

Tips for Parents

It’s important to remember that autism affects each child in a different way. Likewise, the most important first step is to identify whether there’s a problem.

One way to get started is to visit “Learn the Signs. Act Early,” a CDC-sponsored website/program that offers free resources to help parents monitor their children’s developmental milestones. This site is an especially valuable first step because it can help parents determine whether or not their child is developing at a normal, healthy pace.

If there’s any cause for concern, parents should seek the immediate advice of their pediatrician. If an autism diagnosis is made, it’s important for parents to avail themselves of the many resources and services offered for autistic children and their parents. These range from mentoring and language tutoring to special education services, as well as educational and communicative aids for parents to use with their children.

While the rise in the autism rate clearly shows cause for concern, experts stress that increased awareness within the last decade, from both the public and the medical community, has gone a long way toward helping autistic children (as well as adults).

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