Laura Dewey wrote this for the "Healthy Kids" blog. She is a pediatric psychologist at Nemours/A.I. duPont Hospital for Children.
The word autism is scary, and hearing that it is on the rise can be especially alarming. The most recent report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one in 68 children meet criteria for autism spectrum disorder (ASD), the most up-to-date name for the disorder characterized by deficits in social interaction and communication, and repetitive, restricted patterns of behaviors, interests, or activities. That's about 30 percent higher than the CDC reported in 2012.
There is debate as to why ASD prevalence has risen; some say it's due to better awareness and diagnosis, others say the diagnosis is given more freely to access services, and still others say those factors cannot fully account for the increase.
The CDC report does point out that, over the last decade, more children have been diagnosed with ASD who have average intellectual abilities. That might mean kids who had been considered "quirky" or "socially awkward" several years ago are now found to meet criteria for ASD. That can help families, schools, and treatment teams know how best to support these children.
Though autism is scary, there are a few things about ASD to keep in mind. To begin with, we don't know what causes it. It's likely a combination of factors, including genetic and environmental, that caregivers, for the most part, don't have control over. So worrying too much about ASD isn't needed - if your child has it, there's no way you could have prevented it.
Also, we know that behavior-based intervention as soon as possible (before age 5) is the best thing we can do to help all children with ASD reach their potential. Young children's brains are still developing, and interventions that expand social flexibility and communication have been shown to help.
Know early signs
So what should parents do? First, know the early signs of ASD so you can monitor your child's development. It's just like making sure they are eating the right foods or getting enough sleep; make sure they're also meeting their social and communication milestones, such as making eye contact, smiling at others, and using babbling or words to communicate needs and ideas. The CDC's "Learn the Signs. Act Early" program is an excellent place to start, as it lists behaviors to watch for and resources for concerned parents.
Second, if you are worried, talk to professionals you trust. Your pediatrician is a great place to start. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends developmental screening at months 9, 18, and 30, and ASD-specific screening at months 18 and 24, or if concerns are noted by a caregiver or pediatrician. Definitely do not take a wait- and-see approach. Ask for referrals to professionals specializing in ASD to ensure your concerns are addressed.
And last, know that all children have strengths and weaknesses. Just because we have an ASD label doesn't change children - it just gives us more information to understand them and help them grow.