Health Day reports:
More children aged 3 and younger are now being treated for autism in Massachusetts, a new study finds.
One in 129 children in Massachusetts born between 2001 and 2005 was enrolled in early intervention programs for an autism spectrum disorder by their third birthday, according to the study.
Over the five-year period, the proportion of children aged 3 and younger getting treated rose from one in 178 among children born in 2001 to one in 108 for those born in 2005 -- a 66 percent increase.
Much of the increase in diagnosis occurred among boys, which increased by 72 percent from 2001 to 2005, compared to about 39 percent among girls, the investigators found.
The study authors said they aren't sure if the reason for the rise is because greater awareness and better availability of services means kids are getting diagnosed and into treatment sooner, or if autism itself is becoming more common.
"We are showing an increase in diagnoses in autism, and there are multiple things that could be contributing to that," said study author Dr. Susan Manning, who was a maternal and child epidemiologist at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health at the time the research was conducted.
Those factors could include efforts by the state department of public health to promote early identification and referral of children with autism spectrum disorders, national efforts to promote autism screening such as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's "Learn the Signs, Act Early" campaign, and that's resulted in increased public awareness.
"A certain portion of the increase could be due to an actual increase in autism," Manning said.
The Massachusetts numbers, Manning noted, are comparable to estimates from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for older kids, which put the number of 8-year-olds with autism at one in 110, while another study found that one in 91 children aged 3 to 17 has autism. And a recent study from South Korean researchers found an estimated one in 38 South Korean children -- or 2.6 percent -- has an autism spectrum disorder.
Other experts said the study likely reflects an increase in kids under age 3 getting help for autism, not an increase in prevalence.
Researchers relied on from birth certificates and on children enrolled in early intervention programs for autism. In 1998, Massachusetts established the Early Intervention Specialty Services Program for kids with autism, which offers free intensive programs for young children who screen positive for autism spectrum disorders.
While the screening checklist is helpful in determine who might have autism, it isn't a definitive diagnosis, said Irva Hertz-Picciotto, deputy director of the MIND Institute (Investigation of Neurodevelopmental Disorders) at University of California, Davis.
"The paper is most useful for assessing utilization of services and health planning, and is just plain not comparable to estimates from, say the CDC's ADDM [Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring] Network," Hertz-Picciotto said.
According to background information in the article, the average age of diagnosis for autism remains at 3.5 to 5 years old.