Autism is a developmental disorder that manifests itself in many ways. It is typically diagnosed in children between the ages of one and eight. Symptoms often -- but not always -- include slow language development, persistent fixations and difficulties with social interactions.
In part, the sharp increase in autism cases is due to the fact that awareness has grown, leading to more correct diagnoses. But it may also reflect an actual increase in the number of people affected by the disorder. We're not quite sure the reasons for the increase, Coleen Boyle of the CDC, said to the Associated Press.
More research will determine what's really behind the data -- in the meantime, autism awareness advocacy groups are taking this opportunity to call attention to the disorder's prevalence in society.
The CDC numbers are alarming, yet they don't begin to tell the story of the real families, real individuals struggling every day, said Mark Roithmayr, president of Autism Speaks, in a statement on the organization's website.
Here are five facts about autism that shed light on the new research.
Diagnoses are not evenly spread across the board.
Autism is much more common in boys than in girls; a full five times as many males are affected by the disorder. In addition, certain states seem to have a preponderance of autism cases. The CDC study found that just one in 210 children in Alabama were affected, as opposed to 1 in 47 in Utah. And the biggest growth in diagnoses over the last few years was among black and Hispanic children. Of course, this may not suggest an actual difference between ethnicities or locations; it could be due instead to changes in medical practices in certain communities over the years.
The word 'autism' can mean many things.
The National Institute of Mental Health lists five disorders that fall under the general umbrella of autism. Some can severely affect a person's behavior, while others are barely noticeable. They are: autistic disorder, or classic autism, which can be somewhat severe; Asperger sysdrome, which causes mild to moderate difficulty with social interactions; Rett syndrome, which affects girls exclusively and can damage muscle coordination; childhood disintegrative disorder, which causes children to lose skills they have already acquired; and a final catchall category for any other pervasive developmental disorders.
There is no cure, but early diagnosis is key.
Although there is no cure for autism, experts say it is important to recognize the signs early and work with children to help reduce the disorder's negative impacts. Early detection is associated with better outcomes, said CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden to CNN. The earlier kids are detected, the earlier they could get services, and the less impairment they'll have on their learning and in their lives on a long-term basis is our best understanding.
The cause is still a mystery.
No one is sure what causes autism; there are a myriad of complex factors that may have an effect. Genetics, for instance, are widely considered an important factor. Autism Speaks reports that over the last five years, scientists have identified a number of rare gene changes, or mutations, associated with autism. Environmental variables may also increase the likelihood, such as childbirth difficulties, age of the parents, and illnesses of the mother during pregnancy.
Autism is not always a detriment.
Some researchers posit that autism should be seen as a strength, not a weakness. There is incredible potential in the differently-wired brains of autistic individuals, even if problems with social interaction may prevent other people from noticing. As Laurent Mottron of the University of Montreal argued in the journal Nature, some autistic people have incredible powers of recall and are gifted when it comes to recognizing complex patterns. Recent data and my own personal experience suggest it's time to start thinking of autism as an advantage in some spheres, not a cross to bear, said Mottron.