CDC reports jump in autism diagnoses

CDC reports jump in autism diagnoses
Ava Cristo
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New government findings are providing a stunning and eye-opening look at the growing number of American families living with autism. 

Based on the latest survey data, the Centers for Disease Control estimates one in 68 American children has been identified with an autism spectrum disorder. That's about 30 percent higher than previous survey. Autism spectrum encompasses a broad range of developmental brain disorders affecting, among other things, speech and social interaction.

These new findings bring renewed urgency to finding the cause of autism and understanding why it seems to be on the increase.

Six-year-old Ava Cristo starts her day at Reed Academy, a New Jersey school for children with autism.

On Thursday, a startling CDC survey of 11 states finds there's been a dramatic jump in the number of children like Ava. The CDC finds autism diagnoses have been steadily rising over the last decade to 1 in 68 children.

Boys are five times more likely than girls to have autism: 1 in 42 boys versus 1 in 189 girls.

What may be the most troubling fact: No one really knows what's behind the increase. Experts believe some of these numbers may be due to better detection of cases that might have been previously overlooked. Much of the increase is believed to be from a cultural and medical shift, with doctors diagnosing autism more frequently, especially in children with milder problems.

"Physicians, health care providers, educators, are clearly getting better at identifying autism as well as the case definition - 'what is autism?' is really evolving," said Dr. Coleen Boyle, CDC.

The news comes as no surprise to Kim Cristo, whose daughter Ava was diagnosed with autism at 18 months.

"No parent wants to hear your child has autism but you can't be afraid of the 'A' word. It's so important not to be afraid of the word but to start fighting as soon as you hear that for your child," said Cristo.

Advocates say the report points to a critical need for early screening. Most children are diagnosed after age four - too late, experts say - when autism disorders can be diagnosed as early as age two.

"Early intervention leads to a better outcome so for us to provide access to care, and coverage for that care, for any child who's diagnosed with autism, we know we can make a world, a lifetime of difference in that person's life," said Liz Feld, president of Autism Speaks.

"The other night she wanted pizza for dinner. She said, 'I want pizza.' Wow! She told me what she wanted. That was such a milestone," said Cristo.

For families like Ava's, triumphs come in simple acts.

Kim Cristo hopes this new report leads to more awareness and better services for families living with autism.

"People look at it very negatively and I think that we need to change the way we look at it," said Cristo.

The main takeaway: Parents should act early when there's concern. Here's what to look for: by six months, a baby should be smiling. By 12 months, they should be responding to their name and pointing to objects.

It's important to talk to your child's doctor early about any signs of developmental delays so they can start getting the right therapy.