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What You Need to Know About Autism Today

On April 2, cities across the globe will “Light It up Blue” for the seventh World Autism Day. And as research about autism continues to grow, here are some can't-miss recent findings.

Autism Rates Are Rising

According to a new CDC report that reviewed the records of 8-year-olds in 11 states, an estimated 1 in 68 children has autism spectrum disorder (ASD), which is 30 percent higher than the last estimate two years ago.

The CDC reported a few more statistics:

  • Autism is still far more common in boys than it is in girls. (One in 42 boys has autism, compared to 1 in 189 girls.)
  • Nearly half of children with ASD have average or above-average intelligence.
  • The average age of diagnosis is 4 years old, though signs and symptoms appear before age 2. White children are identified at a higher rate than black or Hispanic children.

This report again raises the frequently asked question: Is autism becoming more common in the United States with each passing year? Or is the higher diagnosis rate due to awareness campaigns and better screening tools?

RELATED: 10 Early Signs of Autism You Need to Know

It’s most likely that awareness is the cause of the rising numbers, says Thomas Frazier, director of Cleveland Clinic Children’s Center for Autism, who points out that more children with normal intelligence are being identified. “It is becoming clear that awareness is the major driving factor for the recent increases in prevalence. We can see this in the CDC numbers by looking at the rates of ASD with intellectual disability, which are getting lower each time the CDC surveys. These rates are getting lower because we are identifying more high-functioning cases due to awareness.”

At the same time, diagnostic tools are also changing. “It seems very likely that some degree of diagnostic substitution is occurring—we are viewing children today in the ASD category, when previously we may have viewed them in a different category, such as ADHD or intellectual disability, or in no diagnostic category at all,” says Dr. Thomas D. Challman, medical director of the Autism & Developmental Medicine Institute, Pennsylvania.

Autism May Begin in the Womb

While this combination of awareness and improved diagnostics means more children are diagnosed than ever before, two recent studies shed light on how autism may develop before a child is even born.

A team of researchers from King’s College London looked closely at what is called epigenetic changes that occur in children with autism. Epigenetic means that something has happened to change the way a gene expresses itself.

By looking at 50 sets of identical twins—sets had ASD in both twins, in one twin or in no twins—researchers were able to discover differences in the development of something called DNA methylation in children with and without ASD. DNA methylation “silences” a gene’s ability to express itself. The number of points where this DNA methylation occurred was linked to the severity of autism symptoms. While we know that autism is hereditary, this study appears to indicate that some sort of environmental factor is also in play.

RELATED: 10 Amazing Kids With Autism

A second recent study that may support the findings of the first found that changes in the autistic brain actually begin before birth. When researchers from the University of California, San Diego, examined brain tissue from 22 children, half of whom had been diagnosed with autism, they found something surprising.

Cells found in areas of the brain that direct social interaction and language were different in 10 of the 11 children with autism. It wasn’t that the cells hadn’t developed or were damaged—they never actually grew into the type of cell they were supposed to be. These “changed” cells were discovered in the cerebral cortex, which develops between the 19th and 30th weeks of pregnancy.

“While this was a small study, it provides compelling evidence that the events leading to autism have their origin long before birth,” says Challman.

What to Do If You Suspect Your Child Is Autistic

We may not yet have all the answers about what causes autism, but the experts are clear on what parents should do if their child stops hitting developmental milestones: Get help right away.

“If a parent suspects ASD in her child, do not be afraid of seeking services. Addressing and intervening aggressively early in the child’s life is the single best thing parents can do,” says Matthew Ratz, vocational training coordinator for Community Services for Autistic Adults and Children in Maryland. He points to studies that have linked early intervention services with reduced severity of symptoms later in a child’s life, and says you shouldn't wait for a formal ASD diagnosis to access services like speech therapy. “Parents should be assertive and proactive to get any service that might make a difference,” says Ratz.

“Get good prenatal care,” recommends Frazier. “And moms should take their folate. Stay in close contact with your doctor, and take good care of yourself. After your child is born, go to all your child’s doctor visits, and if your doctor suggests your child might need more detailed evaluation of development or speech therapy, get it!”

Parental Creativity Can Make a Huge Difference in Connecting With Autistic Children

While a strong intervention program including speech therapy, special education service, occupational therapy, and/or applied behavior analysis (ABA) can help children with autism grow and thrive, parents of children with autism also often come up with their own creative ways to connect to their children.

Amanda Morin, author of the upcoming book The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education, discovered one day that her son Jacob, 11, who has autism, related to the character Dr. Sheldon Cooper on the TV show The Big Bang Theory. He noticed that Sheldon, like him, often struggled socially but didn’t really understand why what he was doing or saying was wrong.

“Then one day,” Morin shares, “he was arguing with me about some rule at school (I think it was about not putting his hands on someone's shoulders to get their attention, so the ‘hands off at all times rule’) and just could NOT understand why it was a rule. I got a little fed up and said, ‘It's a non-optional social convention. You don't have to understand why, you just have to abide by it.’“

Using that phrase “non-optional social convention,” which he often heard used on the Big Bang Theory, helped Jacob understand that—whether he knew why or not—he just had to keep his hands to himself.

RELATED: Parents Connect to Autistic Son Through Disney Movies

“It was like something clicked for him all of a sudden,” says Morin. “He knew what that meant for Sheldon and so he knew what I meant when I said it. So, we started using some of the phrases from the show to help him "get" social rules. It worked well enough that most of his teachers at school are willing to try it, too, and have been really successful.”

Morin adds, “Autism and social strategies are a moving target. What works now may not work in a few months, but for now what we're doing is working in most circumstances. It's subtle, it's relevant and it's tied to real life.”

We might not yet know what causes autism, and we may not have a full understanding of why the numbers keep climbing, but parents have a wide variety of resources to access if they suspect their child has autism. Intervention services mixed with creative parenting and lots of love give children a strong start, and that's newsworthy.

Photo by Getty Images

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