by Jenny Hontz
May 24, 2012
When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that the rate of autism diagnosed in the U.S. has grown 78 percent from 2002 to 2008 to 1 in 88 children, it set off a vigorous debate over the causes of the increase. One out of every 54 U.S. boys is now diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder—almost five times the number of girls.
At issue is whether the numbers reflect an actual increase in the incidence of the developmental disorder, or whether it’s due to heightened awareness, misdiagnosis, or a broadening definition of autism, which now includes those with milder forms of the disorder and people who are higher functioning.
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) includes not only those with impaired communication and social skills as well as repetitive behaviors, but also people with Asperger Syndrome, which involves social impairment without cognitive or communication problems. However, a panel at the American Psychiatric Association is currently reassessing the diagnostic criteria for autism, and proposed changes would likely exclude many who currently have milder forms of the disorder.
The causes of autism are unknown, although research has shown that both genetic and non-genetic factors play a role. Children with a parent or sibling who has autism are at higher risk, as are children born to older parents, according to the CDC. A recent study published in Clinical Epigentics showed that neurodevelopment can be adversely affected when gene expression is altered by dietary factors such as zinc deficiency and exposure to pesticides.
Another new study, published in the Journal Pediatrics found that obesity and diabetes during pregnancy can increase a woman’s chances of giving birth to a child with autism.
Detecting autism in your child
There is no simple blood test for autism, so a diagnosis often comes down to clinical judgment.
However, some of the warning signs for autism include:
Babies as young as 4–6 months can show warning signs of autism such as lack of eye contact and smiles. A lack of any babbling by 9 months of age and any loss of previously gained skills at any age can also be red flags.
While there is no known cure for autism, early identification and treatment has been shown to improve the symptoms for many children, and the CDC says children can be reliably diagnosed as young as age 2. Parents who are concerned about their children meeting developmental milestones should talk to their pediatrician and contact their state’s early intervention program (for kids under 3) or the school district (for kids over 3).
Kids under 3 years of age who have significant developmental delays can qualify for a range of free intervention services such as speech therapy, occupational therapy, behavioral therapy, and social skills training, depending on need, even without a diagnosis. The best treatment for autism is early detection and proper intervention.
To see whether your baby is on track, check out baby gooroo’s Developmental Milestones chart.
Jenny Hontz is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer, yogi, and mom.
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