COLUMBUS — A new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finds the number of children in the U.S. with autism spectrum disorder may be nearly 80 percent higher than first thought, although changes in the way survey questions were worded and an expanding definition of the disorder may have contributed to this dramatic increase.
A survey between 2011 and 2013 showed that one in 80 children were diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. The newest survey completed in 2014 found that the number is now 1 in 45. The survey was conducted through the National Health Interview Survey, which includes a large database of people throughout the U.S. It asked parents if a health professional has ever told them their child has autism and based results on their responses.
Dr. Katie Walton, an autism researcher at The Ohio State University, said the way the survey questions were worded had changed between the first and second studies.
“It’s asking about autism specifically, rather than grouping it in with a list of other disabilities,” Walton said. “That may have brought parents attention to that more. The change in the way the questions were asked is probably the reason for that shift in numbers.”
Another reason for the shift, Walton said, is that more disorders are being included within the umbrella. Autism spectrum disorder encompasses Asperger’s Syndrome and pervasive developmental disorder, along with autism.
“Many more children are receiving that diagnosis now than several decades ago just based on our definition of the condition,” she said.
While this study does not necessarily mean that autism rates have risen by 80 percent in one year, Walton said the report is consistent with other findings about the prevalence of autism in children.
“One of the things that’s been really helpful about this study is they’re really trying to bring together data from multiple sources and start comparing,” she said. “It will give us information about really how many children have autism, as opposed to paying such close attention to numbers in one study.”
Barbara Blass, early childhood coordinator at the Allen County Board of Developmental Disabilities, said the number of children her office works with that have been diagnosed with ASD has remained fairly consistent over the last several years.
What has changed, she said, is the variety of programs available to help children with ASD.
One of these methods is called the PLAY Project, an evidence-based, parent-mediated autism intervention model that is offered by the ACBDD. With PLAY, an autism specialist will spend up to a year coaching parents on how to properly play with their young children.
“It’s helping draw the child out and trying to get that relationship and those social connections going back and forth between the child and their family and peers,” Blass said.
Blass said the program highlights “little things,” such as getting down on a child’s level while they play and sitting directly across from them to ensure they make eye contact.
Rachael Staley, an early intervention specialist at the ACBDD who is certified with PLAY, said the project teaches families that it’s not what you play with your children, it’s how you play.
She said it’s also designed to draw a response from a child, which can be difficult with autistic children.
“The biggest thing is getting their child to interact,” Staley said. “Getting them to do little things and drawing them out is definitely huge for any child on the autism spectrum.”
Reach John Bush at 567-242-0456 or on Twitter @bush_lima