Study Highlights Prevalence of Autism

10.07.09 New federal figures show cases of the disorder on the rise, with rate now set at 1 in 100 children.

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Over the past decade, autism has made a steady climb from obscure syndrome to what seems like a pervasive developmental disorder. And now more bad news: A new federal study estimates that the prevalence is more likely about 1 in 100 children, The New York Times and The Associated Press report. Currently there are an estimated 673,000 children with autism in the U.S.

The journal Pediatrics released new statistics compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in a telephone survey, which boosted the rate from the previous 1 in 150 to the now-updated 1 in 100. In the survey of 78,000 households, parents were asked whether a health care provider had ever told them that their child had an autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Autism spectrum disorders are a group of neurodevelopmental disorders, including autism, Asperger syndrome and pervasive developmental disorder. The severity varies from child to child; affected children show impairment in social interaction and ability to communicate. They often display repetitive behavior.

Researchers also asked a follow-up question: Were the children considered to have ASD now? Nearly 40 percent of the parents and guardians said no. That finding lead the study's authors to question whether some of the children originally diagnosed as having ASD may have been improperly diagnosed.

Autism is largely genetic, but evidence also points to "triggers" in the prenatal environment that may help experts decode the disorder. But there is some hope: Autism researchers who specialize in early intervention can recognize clues to the syndrome in high-risk babies as young as 3 or 4 months.

Experts say some warning signs are apparent before age 1. If you are worried, check out our list of warning signs. And of course, communicate with your pediatrician about your concerns. She's there to help!

Maria Vega is Fit Pregnancy magazine's copy editor.