(CBS News) There is a surprising new report on autism. The Centers for Disease Control now estimates 1 in 88 children has a disorder on the autism spectrum. That's up 23 percent from just two years ago. The rate for boys is now 1 in 54. CBS News correspondent Michelle Miller looks into what's behind the increase in Thursday's report.
The CDC's latest survey suggests autism is epidemic. It was an unexpected finding to Dr. Gary Goldstein, President of the Kennedy Krieger Institute, who studies the disorder.
"That's a pretty enormous number and I was sort of surprised that it's continuing to increase at this rate of over 20 percent," he said.
In fact, the new numbers would indicate an extraordinary situation -- that the rate of autism has doubled in just six years.
Dr. Coleen Boyle of the CDC oversaw the study. "No matter what the number is," she said, "there's one thing for certain, and that is that more children are being identified with autism."
In 2008, the CDC studied the medical and educational records of over 300,000 8-year-olds in 14 states. They were looking for a diagnosis or symptoms of autism spectrum disorder or ASD.
ASD refers to a group of symptoms including a profound inability to communicate, mental retardation, and other developmental disorders from mild to severe. Diagnosis can be complicated and subjective.
"The people who are making the observations are more attuned to autism and more likely to describe these symptoms," said Goldstein.
The CDC acknowledges that the surge is due in part to increased awareness. The cause of autism remains a mystery.
Some of the clues may be found in studying families like the Otts. Twelve-year-old Brock Ott was diagnosed at age five.
"I act normal now," he said. "If you got me when I was young, I'd stare into space and then I'd talk to you while I'm staring into space. You'd be talking to me and I'd be staring here and I'd still be talking to you."
"So things have gotten better?" asked Miller.
"A lot better," said Brock.
At Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, researchers look for changes in the brain after birth, and even during pregnancy. That's why Brock's sister, Vianna has been monitored since she was born.
So far, she's a typical three-year-old. But given the rise in cases, her mother Naidona is anxious for answers.
"When I have grandchildren, is it going to be 1 in 2?" she asked.
Naidona's son Brock has gone through extensive therapy in specialized schools before he saw improvement. Next year, new guidelines are expected to change the definition of autism. That could drastically reduce the number of children being given the diagnosis, particularly those kids with mild autistic traits like Brock.