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Autism may be more common than previously thought, CDC says

Last Updated Apr 26, 2018 5:01 PM EDT

About 1 in 59 children in the United States live with autism spectrum disorder, according to a report published today by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that tracks autism in 11 communities across the country. That's a higher number than the previous estimate, released in 2016, which found 1 in 68 children in the U.S. have autism.

Autism is  a neurological and developmental disorder characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, and speech and nonverbal communication. It emerges in early childhood and lasts throughout a person's lifetime.

The data comes from CDC's Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring (ADDM) Network, a tracking system that provides estimates of the prevalence and characteristics of autism spectrum disorder among more than 300,000 8-year-old children from 11 communities across the U.S. It is not a representative sample of the United States, but rather a detailed look at autism in these specific communities. The CDC says it is the largest population-based program to monitor autism and the only autism tracking system that examines health and education records.

Experts can't yet tell from the report whether autism is actually on the rise or whether the new numbers are due to improvements in recognizing and diagnosing the condition.

"It's a significant increase," Dr. Thomas Frazier, the chief science officer at Autism Speaks, told CBS News. "Part of the increase is due to the fact that we have reduced disparities both in terms of identifying girls with autism and also African-Americans and Hispanic children with autism. But also part of the increase we are just not sure exactly why that is happening."

Previous research has shown girls were being diagnosed with autism at a later age than boys, likely because they exhibit different and less severe symptoms.

Researchers from the CDC agree that some of the increase may be due to improved identification of autism cases in minority populations. While data shows autism is still more common in white children, the number is growing in Hispanic and black children. This is important, experts say, because diagnosing autism early means interventions can start at a younger age and kids are more likely to reach their fullest potential.

"Autism prevalence among black and Hispanic children is approaching that of white children," Stuart Shapira, M.D., Ph.D., associate director for science at CDC's National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities, said in a statement. "The higher number of black and Hispanic children now being identified with autism could be due to more effective outreach in minority communities and increased efforts to have all children screened for autism so they can get the services they need."

The report also shed light on the need to identify more children with autism at a younger age and get them into early intervention programs. The researchers found that fewer than half of the children in the report received their first autism diagnosis by the time they were 4 years old.

Additionally, while 85 percent of the children with autism had notes in their health records expressing concern about their development by the time they were 3, less than half received a developmental evaluation by that age.

This lag is a serious concern because it can delay the beginning of services these children need. 

"We know that if a child gets into early developmental behavior interventions that their outcome is going to be considerably better than children that don't get access to those interventions," Frazier said.

Victoria Mantia says at-home therapy has greatly helped her 4-year-old son, Noah, who was diagnosed with autism when he was 2.

"They work on basics like the alphabet, the numbers, even the speech they go through with him — they try to pull out the sounds, prompt him a lot," she told CBS News. 

She urged other parents who have any concerns to talk to their doctor.

Shapira agrees: "Parents can track their child's development and act early if there is a concern. Healthcare providers can acknowledge and help parents act on those concerns. And those who work with or on behalf of children can join forces to ensure that all children with autism get identified and connected to the services they need as early as possible," she said. "Together we can improve a child's future."