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The Autism Explosion

Ryan Massey, 11, plays with some action figures while in his bedroom, Monday, Oct. 8, 2007, in Dacula, Ga. Ryan is the youngest of three brothers in his family, all of whom have aspergers syndrome, which is a milder variant of autistic disorder. (AP Photo/John Amis)
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A few decades ago, people probably would have said kids like Ryan Massey and Eddie Scheuplein were just odd. Or difficult.

Both boys are bright. But Ryan, 11, is hyper and prone to angry outbursts, sometimes trying to strangle another kid in his class who annoys him. Eddie, 7, has a strange habit of sticking his shirt in his mouth and sucking on it.

Both were diagnosed with a form of autism. And it's partly because of children like them that autism appears to be skyrocketing: In the latest estimate, as many as one in 150 children have some form of this disorder. Groups advocating more research money call autism "the fastest-growing developmental disability in the United States."

Indeed, doctors are concerned there are even more cases out there, unrecognized: The American Academy of Pediatrics last week stressed the importance of screening every kid - twice - for autism by age 2.

But many experts believe these unsociable behaviors were just about as common 30 or 40 years ago. The recent explosion of cases appears to be mostly caused by a surge in special education services for autistic children, and by a corresponding shift in what doctors call autism.

Autism has always been diagnosed by making judgments about a child's behavior; there are no blood or biologic tests. For decades, the diagnosis was given only to kids with severe language and social impairments and unusual, repetitious behaviors.

Many children with severe autism hit themselves or others, don't speak and don't make eye contact.

Blake Dees, a 19-year-old from Suwanee, Ga., falls into that group. For the past eight years, he has been in a day program with intense services, but he still doesn't talk, he's not toilet-trained, and he has a history of trying to eat anything - even broken glass.

But he's not a typical case.

In the 1990s, the autism umbrella expanded, and autism is now shorthand for a group of milder, related conditions, known as "autism spectrum disorders."

The spectrum includes Asperger's syndrome and something called PDD-NOS (for Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified). Some support groups report more than half of their families fall into these categories, but there is no commonly accepted scientific breakdown.

Gradually, there have been changes in parents' own perception of autism, the autism services schools provide, and the care that insurers pay for, experts say.

Eddie, of Buford, Ga., was initially diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and other conditions. But the services he got in school were not very helpful.

His mother, Michelle, said a diagnosis of autism brought occupational therapy and other, better services.

"I do have to admit I almost like the idea of having the autistic label, at least over the other labels, because there's more help out there for you," said Scheuplein.

"The truth is there's a powerful incentive for physicians and schools to classify children in a way that gets services," said Dr. Edwin Trevathan of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.