Christopher Astacio reads with his daughter Cristina, 2, who was recently diagnosed with a mild form of autism. / AP
(CBS/AP) The Center for Disease Control and Prevention's latest autism report shows rates of the disorder are on the rise, up 23 percent from the previous estimate. The news has sparked experts to advise parents they should learn the signs that may signal a problem with their child's development, because the earlier the intervention, the better.
The CDC's latest numbers are based on 2008 data from 14 states. The new rate is nearly twice as high than 2002 data estimates of roughly 1 in 150 kids. And it's 23 percent higher than a later estimate of 1 in 110 based on 2006 data. Rates are highest in boys and white children. But the biggest rate increase was among Hispanic children, from 1 in 270 in 2002 to about 1 in 125 in 2008.
Cristina Astacio is one such child. At 18 months, she spoke only a few words, wouldn't respond to her name and shunned other kids in her day care group. Last October, her worried parents found out why - she was diagnosed with a mild form of autism, a diagnosis being given to more U.S. children than ever before, largely because of more awareness and better screening methods.
The definition of autism has changed over the years, and Cristina might not have been considered autistic two decades ago.
But experts say kids like her are lucky in a way, because her parents recognized early that something was wrong. The CDC's report found that 40 percent of kids weren't diagnosed until after age 4. Evidence shows that children who are identified early and get help have the best chance for reaching their potential, said CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends autism screening for all children at age 18 months and 2 years.
Autism diagnoses rely on doctors observing behavior. Autism can't be cured, but treatment including intensive behavior therapy can help many kids function better.
The academy's Dr. Susan Hyman said many children who aren't making eye contact and aren't talking "may have autism, but they may have other things." She said it's important for parents to be persistent about their concerns so their kids can be evaluated by doctors.
Dr. Rebecca Landa, director of the Center for Autism and Related Disorders at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, Md, says some signs of autism can be seen in children only 6- to 12-months-old.
"We want to encourage parents to become good observers of their children's development so that they can see the earliest indicators of delays in a baby's communication, social and motor skills," Dr. Landa said in a written statement. She cautions however that some children who develop autism don't show signs until after the second birthday or regress after appearing to develop typically.
Kristy Batesole, of Atascadero, Calif., says she suspected something was wrong with her son, Keegan, even when he was a hard-to-calm overly fussy baby. He learned words, but by age 2 stopped talking, would spend hours opening and closing doors and sometimes bang his head on the ground. Though he started getting special help in preschool in Nevada, he wasn't formally diagnosed with autism until last year, at age 6, after the family moved to California, where there are more autism specialists.
Cristina Astacio gets two hours of behavior therapy six days a week. Her mom, Charisse, says the little girl now responds to commands and speaks about 50 words. The most special are two words Cristina never said before. "Now she says `mommy' and `daddy,'" Astacio said. "It's wonderful."
Christina's dad, Christopher, is a special-education teacher in the New York City; most of the kids in his class are Hispanic and many have autism.
"I remember back in the past, a few kids here and there had autism, not like the way it is now," Astacio said. "I'm really curious why so many kids are being diagnosed."
CDC officials say research into causes of autism will help determine if there's been a true increase or just better diagnosis.
Geraldine Dawson, chief science officer for the advocacy group Autism Speaks, said the new figures indicate "a public health emergency that demands immediate attention."
Her group estimates that U.S. autism costs total $126 billion each year, including costs related to diagnosis and treatment. That estimate also includes treatment for severely affected adults and lost wages.
The autism rate increase also is likely due to better awareness. The CDC report says there's no strong evidence of any racial or ethnic difference in risk factors for autism and that it's likely the condition is underdiagnosed in blacks and Hispanics.
"The autism spectrum is so vast, and all of our children are different," said Melissa Miller, a St. Petersburg, Fla., mom whose daughter, Chelsea, was diagnosed last year at age 2. "Many of them don't rock back and forth or have savant skills. They are sweet, affectionate, intelligent, goofy - and exhausting - kids," she said.
Proposed revisions in the manual that doctors use to diagnose mental illness would streamline autism criteria. Critics contend the suggested changes would be too narrow and exclude children who need educational and behavioral services.
Hyman noted that since the manual's last revision, in 1994, much has been learned about autism. "There's a real possibility the new definition will be better for children," she said Thursday at a CDC news conference.