WEDNESDAY, May 18 (HealthDay News) -- More children aged 3 and
younger are now being treated for autism in Massachusetts, a new
One in 129 children in Massachusetts born between 2001 and 2005
was enrolled in early intervention programs for an autism spectrum
disorder by their third birthday, according to the study.
Over the five-year period, the proportion of children aged 3 and
younger getting treated rose from one in 178 among children born in
2001 to one in 108 for those born in 2005 -- a 66 percent
Much of the increase in diagnosis occurred among boys, which
increased by 72 percent from 2001 to 2005, compared to about 39
percent among girls, the investigators found.
The study authors said they aren't sure if the reason for the
rise is because greater awareness and better availability of
services means kids are getting diagnosed and into treatment
sooner, or if autism itself is becoming more common.
"We are showing an increase in diagnoses in autism, and there are multiple things that could be contributing to that," said study author Dr. Susan Manning, who was a maternal and child health epidemiologist at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health at the time the research was conducted.
Those factors could include efforts by the state department of
public health to promote early identification and referral of
children with autism spectrum disorders, national efforts to
promote autism screening such as the U.S. Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention's "Learn the Signs, Act Early" campaign, and
media coverage that's resulted in increased public awareness.
"A certain portion of the increase could be due to an actual increase in autism," Manning said.
The Massachusetts numbers, Manning noted, are comparable to
estimates from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
for older kids, which put the number of 8-year-olds with autism at
one in 110, while another study found that one in 91 children aged
3 to 17 has autism. And a recent study from South Korean
researchers found an estimated one in 38 South Korean children --
or 2.6 percent -- has an autism spectrum disorder.
Other experts said the study likely reflects an increase in kids
under age 3 getting help for autism, not an increase in
Researchers relied on data from birth certificates and on
children enrolled in early intervention programs for autism. In
1998, Massachusetts established the Early Intervention Specialty
Services Program for kids with autism, which offers free intensive
programs for young children who screen positive for autism spectrum
While the screening checklist is helpful in determine who might
have autism, it isn't a definitive diagnosis, said Irva
Hertz-Picciotto, deputy director of the MIND Institute (Medical
Investigation of Neurodevelopmental Disorders) at University of
"The paper is most useful for assessing utilization of services and health planning, and is just plain not comparable to estimates from, say the CDC's ADDM [Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring] Network," Hertz-Picciotto said.
The study was released online May 16 in advance of publication
in the June print issue of the journal
According to background information in the article, the average
age of diagnosis for autism remains at 3.5 to 5 years old.
The paper seems to show that kids in Massachusetts at least are
beginning to get diagnosed and into treatment sooner -- good news,
said Dr. Rebecca Landa, director of the Center for Autism &
Related Disorders at Kennedy Krieger Institute.
"This paper highlights the fact that more children are getting autism spectrum disorder services," Landa said. "All those working hard to identify these early signs of autism spectrum disorder and promote the fact that early intervention helps, that's starting to have a public impact."
In 2001, white children were more likely to be diagnosed with
autism than black or Hispanic children. However, by 2005, those
disparities had largely disappeared, perhaps because of outreach
efforts specifically targeted at minorities, Manning said.
Infants younger than 24 months of age whose mothers' primary
language was not English or were foreign-born were less likely to
be diagnosed with autism.
Boys were from four to five times more likely to be diagnosed
with an autism spectrum disorder than girls, the researchers
"We're really trying to highlight the importance of early diagnosis and getting children into intensive services early," Manning said.
Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that's characterized by
problems with social interaction, verbal and nonverbal
communication, and restricted interests and behaviors.
U.S. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and
Stroke has more on autism.