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Vanderbilt expert weighs in on new CDC findings for autism prevalence

March 29, 2012

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced today that the prevalence of children in the United States with autism has increased. The newly-released statistics suggest one in 88 children have an Autism Spectrum Disorder, up from one in 110 released in 2009.

Zachary Warren, Ph.D., director of the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center’s Treatment and Research Institute for Autism Spectrum Disorders at Vanderbilt University, says effective early identification and treatment of autism is a public health emergency.

“The new CDC data is the best evidence we have to date that autism is a very common disorder. While recent estimates have varied, we have always known the individual, familial, educational and societal costs that go along with autism are tremendous,” Warren said. “We are now seeing autism in more than 1 percent of the population, which highlights how challenging it will be for systems of care to meet service needs.”

Most educational and medical systems do not have the resources capable of meeting the comprehensive needs of individuals with autism and their families across the lifespan, Warren added.

Programs aimed at enhancing early identification of autism are often thought to be a critical first step in autism treatment, as intervention during early childhood may result in tremendous differences over time. Given the prevalence rates, many medical centers have struggled to meet needs for such identification, with waits of six to 12 months.

Through a combination of clinical programs, training models, research projects and community partnerships, Vanderbilt has created a system of care designed to minimize the distress that families must endure when waiting to be evaluated for autism.

“We at Vanderbilt have decided that early identification is a priority, and we’ve worked very hard to achieve the goal of shortened waits for families and providers,” Warren said. “When a family or a pediatrician calls Vanderbilt for an autism evaluation for a young child, my hope is that we will continually be able to offer families what most medical centers cannot – an appointment.”

“As a parent I cannot fathom how stressful it would be to be told that your child may have autism, and ‘we’ll let you know the answer to that question in six to 12 months.’ Given the public health implications of the disorder, what we should be asking is ‘would you like to be seen this week or next.’”

As recently as the 1970s, autism was believed to affect just one in 2,000 children. This newly released data is based off children born in 2000 and means autism possibly affects roughly 1 million U.S. children and teens.

Boys with autism outnumber girls 5-to-1, according to the CDC report, which estimates that 1 in 54 boys in the United States have autism.

Autism is so common, Warren says, that service systems can’t afford to wait.

“Autism shouldn’t be a ‘Scarlett Letter A’ or something that our community is uncomfortable discussing,” Warren said. “This is a disorder you need to know about if you are a community pediatrician, educator or parent. We need to be thinking about effective ways to talk about the disorder in terms of risk and identification and we also really need to think about realistic systems of care for one percent of our population.”

The Vanderbilt Kennedy Center’s Treatment and Research Institute for Autism Spectrum Disorders examines the causes and treatment of Autism Spectrum Disorders with current research programs including:
• the diagnosis of autism
• identification of genetic and core behavioral features of autism
• the nature and treatment of sleep disturbance in children with autism
• early intervention with children at risk for autism
• development of siblings of children with autism
• understanding the health and well-being of parents with children with autism

“Our mission is to facilitate discoveries and best practices that make positive differences in the lives of persons with developmental disabilities and their families,” said Elisabeth Dykens, Ph.D., director of the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center. “We do this by pursuing science with creativity and purpose, disseminating cutting-edge information to families, communities and national leaders and translating knowledge into effective service and practice.”
 

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