It affects some 500,000 American children, at an estimated annual cost of $35 billion.
CBS News medical correspondent Dr. Jon LaPook says autism has a spectrum of symptoms, including problems with communication, social interaction, and behavior. Symptoms begin before age 3 and last a lifetime. There is no cure.
"This is an epidemic," developmental pediatrician Dr. Cecelia McCarton told LaPook. "You have one out of 150 children being diagnosed with autism. With boys alone there's one out of 94 being diagnosed with it."
LaPook also spoke with a number of parents of kids with autism about the overwhelming emotional and financial impact on their families.
But parents and experts say increased awareness of autism hasn't translated into better treatment and support.
"On a scale of one-to-ten," LaPook asked McCarton, "how well are we doing in treating autism?"
"I think we're at a two," she replied. "Maybe inching toward three."
Parents point to long waiting lists at schools specializing in helping kids with autism, and enormous costs associated with getting their children the support they need, as particular concerns.
And, they tell LaPook, their kids' autism dominates their consciousness, taking a heavy emotional toll.
To see LaPook's report,
General Electric Vice Chairman Bob Wright and his wife Suzanne spoke with Early Show co-anchor Maggie Rodriguez on World Autism Awareness Day Wednesday.
They started Autism Speaks, one of the leading global autism advocacy and research organizations, after their grandson was diagnosed with the disorder.
Autism Speaks played a key role in designating the day, with the United Nations.
The key is "just to keep spreading the word" about autism, Bob said. "It needs so much awareness. This is the first global building step."
Suzanne says improved diagnosis alone can't account for the vast rise in the number and percentage of kids with autism. "Something is going on," she said.
The numbers, Bob, said, are "just staggering."
To see the interview of the Wrights,