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(NY) Expert: More ASD due to "broadening of autism spectrum, increased awareness"

April 2, 2024, Long Island Press: Autism: Is It Becoming More Common, Or Just Diagnosed More?

About one in every 36 children has been identified as having autism spectrum disorder (ASD), according to a 2023 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report. This is up from the 2018 estimate of one in every 44 children, and significantly higher than the 2006 figure of one in 110 children.

Why the numbers have increased in recent years “is a complex question with a multitude of answers,” says Debra Reicher, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and assistant professor at Stony Brook University’s Renaissance School of Medicine. . . .

Why the Increase in Numbers?

The broadening of the autism spectrum and increased awareness of ASD are major reasons for the significant rise in incidence. 

“When I did my training in the late 1980s/early 1990s, autism was more narrowly defined,” Reicher says. “The spectrum is much broader today.” Further, doctors and other practitioners have gotten better at identifying cases of autism, especially among individuals without intellectual disability. When Reicher entered the field, “80% of individuals with an autism diagnosis had cognitive delays,” she says. “That number is now around 30%,” which she says speaks to practitioners’ improved understanding of how autism presents in individuals with average or above-average intellectual ability. 

There has also been improvement in the ability to identify females with autism. . . .

Currently, boys are nearly four times more likely than girls to be diagnosed with ASD, according to the CDC, but Reicher says that she has seen a marked increase in girls being identified. “Over time, we will see a shift in the male-female ratio,” she says. 

An increase in general awareness about ASD has resulted in more screening and developmental monitoring by pediatricians, other healthcare professionals and school personnel, says Maria Pellegrino, a school psychologist with AHRC Suffolk Saul & Elaine Seiff Educare Center in Bohemia.  . . .

In addition, a greater acceptance of neurodiversity in recent years means there’s “less stigma associated with an ASD diagnosis,” Pellegrino says. “As a result, parents are more comfortable seeking a diagnosis, to ensure that their children have access to resources.” 

Low birth weight and prematurity are risk factors for ASD, and the fact that more premature babies who would not have made it years ago are surviving today may be a contributing factor to the rise in ASD incidence, Reicher says. Also, as there’s a small incremental risk for ASD with advanced parental age, the fact that people are waiting longer to have babies than in the past may also have an impact, she says. Various environmental factors may also play a role, she adds. . . .


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