Sharp rise in early autism diagnoses, according to new study

More children aged 3 and younger are now being treated for autism in Massachusetts, a new study finds. The study authors said they aren’t sure if the reason for the rise is because greater awareness and better availability of services means kids are getting diagnosed and into treatment sooner, or if autism itself is becoming more common.

One in 129 children in Massachusetts born between 2001 and 2005 was enrolled in early intervention programs for an autism spectrum disorder by their third birthday, according to the study.

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Over the five-year period, the proportion of children aged 3 and younger getting treated rose from one in 178 among children born in 2001 to one in 108 for those born in 2005 — a 66% increase. Much of the increase in diagnosis occurred among boys, which increased by 72% from 2001 to 2005, compared to about 39% among girls, the investigators found.

“We are showing an increase in diagnoses in autism, and there are multiple things that could be contributing to that,” said study author Dr. Susan Manning, who was a maternal and child health epidemiologist at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health at the time the research was conducted.

Those factors could include efforts by the state department of public health to promote early identification and referral of children with autism spectrum disorders, national efforts to promote autism screening such as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s “Learn the Signs, Act Early” campaign, and media coverage that’s resulted in increased public awareness. Or, “a certain portion of the increase could be due to an actual increase in autism,” Manning said.

The Massachusetts numbers, Manning noted, are comparable to estimates from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for older kids, which put the number of 8-year-olds with autism at one in 110, while another study found that one in 91 children aged 3 to 17 has autism. And a recent study from South Korean researchers found an estimated one in 38 South Korean children — or 2.6% — has an autism spectrum disorder.

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“We’re really trying to highlight the importance of early diagnosis and getting children into intensive services early,” Manning said.

In 2001, white children were more likely to be diagnosed with autism than black or Hispanic children. However, by 2005, those disparities had largely disappeared, perhaps because of outreach efforts specifically targeted at minorities, Manning said.

Infants younger than 24 months of age whose mothers’ primary language was not English or were foreign-born were less likely to be diagnosed with autism, possibly due to the language barrier. Boys were from four to five times more likely to be diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder than girls, the researchers found.

Although the study is inconclusive, meaning the results are unclear as to whether the rise can technically be blamed on an actual rise in autism patients, or better programs in place for a diagnosis. Experts believe the study likely reflects an increase in kids under age 3 getting help for autism, not an increase in prevalence.

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