science of us

The Complicated Reasons Autism Rates Are Still on the Rise

Photo: Sonja Belle/EyeEm/Getty Images

According to the latest data from the CDC, one in 59 8-year-olds were diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder in 2014, up 15 percent from 2012 — and 150 percent from 2000. The numbers are the latest installment in a biannual survey released by the Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network, which collects diagnostic rates from 11 sample areas across the country, including Tennessee, Minnesota, and New Jersey. What do the ever-increasing rates of autism diagnosis reflect? Are more children being born with autism, or are experts — and parents — getting better at recognizing the symptoms? And what implications does this have for communities and public health?

This is the country’s most comprehensive surveillance of diagnostic rates.
The report collects rates of diagnoses in its representative sites and does not delve further into cause or analysis. It notes that autism is inherently challenging to track, because it is a spectrum with a diverse range of impacts, with diagnostic criteria that has shifted since 2000.

Youth of color are closing the diagnostic gap.
In the 2012 report, white children were diagnosed with autism 50 percent more often than Hispanic children and 20 percent more often than African-American children. In 2014, the figure has shifted dramatically. White kids were 20 percent more likely to be diagnosed than Hispanic children, and 10 percent more likely than African-American kids. Allison Singer, president of the Autism Science Foundation, told USA Today that a positive implication of this uptick in minority diagnoses is access to services. With a diagnosis, children of color are more likely to receive accommodations they need to thrive.

The report cautions that it may not be representative of rates in the whole country.
New Jersey reported 964 cases, whereas Tennessee had 387. Daisy Christensen, an epidemiologist with the CDC, told USA Today that the data is affected by urban and rural divide, while those in states like New Jersey have access to more autism specialists and services whereas those in small town Appalachia do not. Additionally, the survey does not draw from the Pacific Northwest or from states outside the continental U.S., like Hawaii or Alaska.

More research and services are urgently needed.
One imperative the report is clear on is the need for more support for those affected, regardless of the why. Access to a full range of services, from job skills training to appropriate housing, is crucial.

The increasing rates of autism are an implicit argument for neurodiversity.
One way to contextualize these rising diagnosis rates is that as autism touches more families and communities, perhaps ignorance and stigma can be lessened and a more inclusive future achieved. It is a concept that some within the autism community refer to as neurodiversity: the idea that human brains and experience are unique, and that autism is not a deviation. “Autism is not a bad thing, and autistic people — of all ages, races, and genders — have always been here,” Zoe Gross, director of operations for Autism Self Advocacy Network told USA Today. “What the CDC’s research shows is that our data is catching up to that fact.”

The Complicated Reasons Autism Rates Are Still on the Rise