Researchers have reported an increase in the number of children suffering from autism spectrum disorder
As part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring network (CDC), Vanderbilt Kennedy Center (VKC) researchers report an increase in children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) in Tennessee.
The researchers released their findings on Dec. 2 in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report of the CDC.
The team, led by Zachary Warren, PhD, director of the VKC Treatment and Research Institute for Autism Spectrum Disorder (TRIAD) and director of the Division of Developmental Medicine in the Department of Pediatrics, and Alison Vehorn, ADDM project director was established in 2015 and was refunded in 2019 with a $1.6 million grant from the CDC to conduct population studies of the prevalence of autism in Middle Tennessee.
Since then since then, the Vanderbilt ADDM group has worked with the larger CDC network, which spans 11 communities across the United States to present prevalence data every two years.
The ADDM network results, which combines data gathered in 2018 from all 11 ADDM sites in the U.S., found that one in 44 children aged 8 years were found to have ASD. This is an increase of a significant amount over earlier estimates of 1 in 54 children aged 8 and older having ASD.
The Middle Tennessee study site reported an increase from 1 in 64 children diagnosed with ASD to 1 in 44. Tennessee is a mid-point in this latest data set across the 11 ADDM sites, with its rate of children aged 8 years old with ASD at 2.3 percent.
It is crucial to realize that the prevalence estimate for ASD for children aged 8 and older isn’t representative of the entire U.S., but rather an in-depth look at the 11 communities that form the CDC’s ADDM network. And the increase cannot be attributed to a single factor.”
Alison Vehorn, ADDM project director
“These results are likely to be a combination of increased awareness and modern methods we use to evaluate children,” Warren explained. There may be other factors that contribute to the increase in ASD, but there is no one cause. Our approach does not provide any details about cause. What it does is show how prevalent ASD is in our communities. These findings support the notion, more so than anything else, that we have to create systems of care capable of serving one child in 44.”
The research also revealed new findings, including the very first monitoring of 4-year-old Tennessee children. The ADDM network found that children born in 2014 (4-year-olds at the time of the study) were 50% more likely to receive an ASD diagnosis or ASD special education designation at the age of 48 months as compared to children born in 2010 (8-year-olds at the time of the study). This is especially significant because of the importance of early identification and access to services for children suffering from autism.
Warren declared that there is increasing evidence that early intervention and assistance for ASD can significantly improve learning skills and quality of life. “Early intervention can lead to significant improvements in language and communication skills. ASD early detection can help us understand, serve and support both parents and children who suffer from ASD.
Another difference in the CDC findings is the particular attention given to children from ethnic or racial minority groups for ASD. The prevalence of ASD in 8-year-olds Black and Hispanic children was significantly different in the past ADDM network. However the differences are no longer relevant in the current report. The ADDM network found that 4-year-olds from ethnic and racial minorities were more likely to be diagnosed with ASD than white children.
These findings could result in improvements in ASD awareness, identification, and access to services in communities that serve Black, Hispanic, and other traditionally underserved groups.
Vehorn stated that “Historically there were massive differences in the treatment of autism and identification, and those disparities have diminished in recent years.” “But we’re not finished with our efforts to improve ASD identification and treatment more equitable for non-white children. These results only mean that we have to continue to identify and assisting children who are historically underrepresented as early as possible.”
Warren and Vehorn’s discoveries in Middle Tennessee and subsequent contributions of the CDC’s ADDM network to the CDC are possible due to strong collaboration between the VKC and the Tennessee Department of Education and Tennessee Department of Health.
Warren declared that partnerships have enabled Warren to accomplish this work on a large scale. “Moreover, the forward-thinking leaders of the Department of Education, the Tennessee Early Intervention System and other state agencies are partnering with Vanderbilt not just to study the prevalence, but they are also using this data to help fund programs to help people suffering from ASD throughout their lives in accordance with the prevalence that has been documented.”
The Tennessee Department of Education, Tennessee Early Intervention System and Tennessee Department of Education support various VKC/TRIAD capacity-building partnerships through technical assistance contracts, professional development, training, and technical assistance contracts. Warren declared that it’s likely that some shifts in service and identification that we observed in Middle Tennessee were a direct result if that funding and broader partnerships.
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