National Geographic News
In this March 23, 2011 photo, UA student Kiemel Lamb sings to students in Pam Miller's autism class at the Sprayberry Center in Northport, Ala.  A University of Alabama program, one of the only ones in the country, utilizes music therapy to treat children with autism and adults with dementia and Alzheimer's. (AP Photo/The Tuscaloosa News, Dusty Compton)

Kiemel Lamb sings to students in March 2011 as part of a University of Alabama program, one of the only ones in the country, that utilizes music therapy to treat children with autism.

PHOTOGRAPH BY DUSTY COMPTON, AP  

Mollie Bloudoff-Indelicato

National Geographic

Published March 28, 2014

Autism rates have increased by about 30 percent in a select group of children in the United States, according to new data released this week from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). But despite such dramatic numbers, there is little cause for panic, experts say.

Autism disorders are characterized by repetitive behaviors and deficits in social communication. About 1 in 68 U.S. children has an autism spectrum disorder, the CDC now reports.

Geographically, the differences among states tested are stark: 1 in 175 children were diagnosed with autism in Alabama, while 1 in 45 New Jersey children received an autism diagnosis.

Nationwide, it's likely that the increase is due to heightened disease awareness, more screening within schools, and a willingness to label the condition, says the CDC. State-by-state numbers can be explained similarly.

Graphic of autism diagnoses increase.

"[The difference among states] is not because there's something going on in the drinking water in New Jersey and that kids in Alabama are spared this environmental exposure," says Lisa Shulman, director of infant and toddler services at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine's Children's Evaluation and Rehabilitation Center in New York City.

"It's access to systems and institutions that diagnose and evaluate," Shulman adds. "There's so much variability geographically in terms of finding cases."

(See “One Thing We Know About Autism: Vaccines Aren’t to Blame.”)

Tracking Autism

The CDC began tracking autism prevalence in the early 2000s and releases new findings every two years. To get the most recent results, CDC researchers looked at the medical records of eight-year-olds who lived in 11 specific areas within the United States.

Because there are no medical tests to diagnose autism, experts used the criteria outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) to retrospectively determine whether they thought a child had the disorder. The DSM-5 is an industry-standard guide published by the American Psychiatric Association.

Though this CDC report is important, it is by no means perfect, experts caution. The fact that it's a retrospective study and looks at only 11 sites within the U.S. means that the results could be skewed.

The increase in autism cases is also not surprising, says Craig Newschaffer, director of the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute in Philadelphia. This year's results, he says, are a continuation of a trend and not a sudden jump. Increased awareness among parents, schools, and organizations has led to more diagnoses, he says.

"Autism [is] more of a household word," says Shulman. "You literally have to be living under a rock to not have heard of autism."

Autism also carries less stigma than it has in the past, says Leslie Markowitz, a pediatric psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic Children's Center for Autism. What with recognition from insurance companies, publicly funded programs for autistic children, and the rise of advocacy organizations like Autism Speaks, people may be more likely to seek the diagnosis, she says.

(See "Oxytocin: The 'Love Hormone' Might Also Help in Autism.")

Further Increases Likely

The number of autism cases is likely to increase further in 2016 when the next CDC report is released. That's because the medical community has changed the diagnostic criteria, including a wider spectrum of disabilities and making it easier for physicians to label their patients with the term.

For those concerned about possible environmental risk factors for autism, experts urge caution. Though the environment may play a role in some of the observed uptick, it is likely a very small one, says Mark Cohen, a developmental pediatrician at the Kaiser Permanente Santa Clara Medical Center.

New diagnostic criteria and better access to care are behind most of the new cases, and parents-to-be should not panic, Cohen says.

"It would not surprise me if the numbers get higher, and it doesn't alarm me," he adds.

Follow Mollie Bloudoff-Indelicato on Twitter.

35 comments
Toby Dawson
Toby Dawson

The “one size fits all” approach to vaccinations is no longer working. According to Dr. Gregory Poland et al. in Vaccinomics and Personalized Vaccinology, included in the 2012 Jordan Report, Accelerated development of vaccines, “...significant individual variation exists in risk of adverse events and in immune response to a given vaccine. Our laboratory has termed the study of individual genetic, epigenetic, and other host-factor contributions to variations in immune responses to vaccines as 'vaccinomics'.” The number of recommended vaccinations has been steadily increasing, along with adverse reaction reports. The current vaccination recommendations from the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics fail to take sufficient account of individual differences, both inherited and acquired, that determine the infant’s ability to tolerate a standard vaccination load. The escalating rate of autism and the frequent observation that autism develops in some children shortly after having received an immunization strongly suggests that the current approach to vaccinations is both outdated and dangerous. The very low incidence of autism in the Amish, who typically delay childhood vaccinations and space them out over time, supports this position. Dr. Poland, Editor-In-Chief of the medical journal, Vaccine, recognizes the individual risk for adverse vaccine events and recommends individualization of the vaccine dose. Determination of medication dosage based on the capacity of a particular organ system has been practiced for years in our hospitals. For example the amount of an antibiotic that has the potential to damage the kidneys is adjusted according the the person’s kidney function determined by a simple standard test. Vaccines are drugs that affect the immune system. Therefore it is reasonable to require mandatory testing of the immune system before vaccines are given and base the immunization schedule on the test results.

Nevenka Stoli
Nevenka Stoli

well, if they admit to increase then they would have to admit being clueless as to reasons behind, meaning admitting them not being any experts after all. That not many humans are willing to sacrifise their egos, and possibly livelihood and cosy pension plans, for something as trivial as 'other people's children' is to be expected.

John Calderon
John Calderon

Experts and goverment as always say they shouldn't be no alarm for this increase as in others disorders or health issues like alzheimer, cancer etc.  Again they don't want you to think that nothing environmental is affecting us because that will start to make people asking questions. 

Anne Dachel
Anne Dachel

The new novel, The Autism War, by Louis Conte is the compelling story of what autism is doing to families and to American society. It's autism as it's never covered by the media.While the characters are fictional, the events and personal struggles presented in the book are being lived out everyday in this country. The disorder with no known cause, prevention, or cure is never a crisis to those in charge of health care, but to families living with the nightmare of autism, it overwhelms. Louis gives the reader autism as it is really is. It is our story.http://www.amazon.com/The-Autism-War-A-Novel/dp/1626365636/ref=pd_sim_sbs_b_1?ie=UTF8&refRID=1R70Z0ZKEY3ATY8VFTRDAnne Dachel, Media editor: Age of Autism

Anne Dachel
Anne Dachel

Last Thurs, Mar 20, 2014, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced an updated autism rate of one in every 68 children ( who were born in 2002).

The Washington Post today reported on it like this:

"In a telephone news conference, Coleen Boyle director of the CDC's National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities, said the growing numbers could reflect both better identification of children with autism spectrum disorders and a growing number of intelligent children with autism.

"'It could be that doctors are getting better at identifying these children, there could be a growing number of children with high intelligence [who are autistic], or it could be both,' she said."

A telephone news conference? Why wasn't this critical news announced at a public news conference where reporters could ask questions and the American people could hear the answers? Why didn't the press demand a public briefing that could be filmed and broadcast?

Anne Dachel, Media editor: Age of Autism

Anne Dachel
Anne Dachel

Where is the alarm? Where is any explanation from the people who get billions of dollars to be in charge of health care? The CDC can't tell us why it's happening. They can't show us the adults at this same rate. Regardless, they STILL says NO REAL INCREASE!

WHERE WAS DR. THOMAS FRIEDEN? He's the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Why didn't he come out with this announcement? At least Dr. Julie Gerberding, the former head, would face the cameras when one of these leaps in the autism rate was released.

Frieden's lack of interest in what autism is doing to our children is mirrored by every other health official out there and all of mainstream medicine along with the major media outlets.

Anne Dachel, Media editor: Age of Autism

Julia Amine
Julia Amine

Everyone wants to be alarmist about autism. Everyone wants to believe in conspiracy theories about it. Why? I am autistic and as long as people are not cruel to me my life is fine. No, psychiatrists are not making money because of my diagnosis, and no, the diagnostic criteria has not narrowed. National Geographic should do a story on the phenomena of so many people believing in conspiracy theories nowadays. You guys would be hilarious if it went for the effects that conspiracy theories have on public health and other public policies. Do you guys know that certain "autism charities" make more money when they panic the public? Yes, those are the true money makers here, not psychiatrists. 

Denise Badger
Denise Badger

The DSM has NARROWED the criteria for diagnosis and I personally believe when something was as obscure as 1 in 10,000 persons skyrockets to two out of every 100 boys that there is huge cause for concern. 30 years and Nat Geo hasn't lifted one eyebrow to a formerly nonexistent rare childhood ailment that is now a household word??

We went from "Rainman" to everyman.

When WILL you care? When it's one of your own?

And what is with the "post via facebook" where you want my name, my friends names, my birthday, my hometown, my personal description and then I still have to REGISTER my profile with you?? Kind of intrusive for just a magazine.

Denise Badger
Denise Badger

The DSM has NARROWED the criteria for diagnosis and I personally believe when something was as obscure as 1 in 10,000 persons when I was a child, skyrockets to two out of every 100 boys that there is huge cause for concern. 30 years of exponential increase and Nat Geo hasn't lifted one eyebrow to a formerly nonexistent rare childhood ailment that is now a household word??

We went from "Rainman" to everyman.

When WILL you care? When it's one of your own?

And what is with the "post via facebook" where you want my name, my friends names, my birthday, my hometown, my personal description and then I still have to REGISTER my profile with you?? And you want to post to my profile on my behalf?? Kind of intrusive for just a magazine.

Denise Badger
Denise Badger

The DSM has NARROWED the criteria for diagnosis and I personally believe when something was as obscure as 1 in 10,000 persons skyrockets to two out of every 100 boys that there is huge cause for concern. 30 years and Nat Geo hasn't lifted one eyebrow to a formerly nonexistent rare childhood ailment that is now a household word??

We went from "Rainman" to everyman.

When WILL you care? When it's one of your own?

G Powell
G Powell

Not a problem....as long as it's not your child.  It's not a couple of percentage points, but it can be explained away.

Thomas Lynch
Thomas Lynch

Thesis makes me sick.  Our kids are being born retarded 1 in 50 or more and we aren't supposed to be alarmed??  And it isn't just the change,  look at the absolute numbers. The author  must be a psychopath to have gone through with publishing such propaganda.

This article looks just like the hired 'scientific' articles published in St. Pierre Martinique telling people the rumbling volcano wouldn't erupt just before it erupted and buried the city.

Now is not the time for complacency about a disease that takes the brains of our children.

Rick Smalley
Rick Smalley

No cause for concern? The numbers are real and they are a MAJOR cause for concern. This "mystery" autism increase is explained at www.WhyAutismHappens.com 

Tu Fur
Tu Fur

The new guidelines appear based on subjective observation. Nice way to increase billings. Not nice to the child, mainly boys. The CDC is just perpetuating the junk science methodology it created in the 1990. Firearms, e-cigarettes, obnoxious boys, all threats to our well being the CDC says...

Jojo Jones
Jojo Jones

Autism cannot can be proved by any objective test or scan. The diagnosis is based on the subjective opinion of a psychiatrist who may stand to benefit financially from its application. The cause(s) are unknown and therefore no specific treatment or cure is possible.  See Kindle book Evolution and Psychiatry.

Robert Lipton
Robert Lipton

if the increase the spectrum ...more people to treat

Michael Mast
Michael Mast

@Anne Dachel  Any reports on the complete and utter lack of casaul evidence from self appointed "Media Editors"?

Michael Mast
Michael Mast

@Anne Dachel  The CDC can and has told you why it's happening. It's happening because of increased ability to diagnose. You simply refuse to provide evidence of any alternative explanation. 

You should be ashamed of yourself for spreading baseless lies to parents and those with Autism without even bothering to demonstrate your claims with causal evidence. You must laugh at all the people who subscribe to your shame of a newsletter. Disgusting.

Michael Mast
Michael Mast

@Denise Badger  Read your post, moron. You personally BELIEVE? Do you know why you believe? Because you need BELIEF to fill in the gaps of what you DO NOT KNOW FOR CERTAIN. Ever wonder why you don't KNOW what you're talking about? It's because you BELIEVE you do. damn.

Michael Mast
Michael Mast

@Denise Badger  30 years of conspiracy baseless conspiracy theories hasn't raise one eyebrow? Damn sociopaths.

Sue Keller
Sue Keller

@G Powell I agree, the only people who are glib about the increasing number of kids with autism are those who don't have a child with autism.

Lorena M.
Lorena M.

@Thomas Lynch  

you are an a** for using the word retarded.....  All should be alarmed and it is a combination of things We have been lucky 2 out 3 in our kids will have a normal outcomes.... We changed there diet and stopped using chemicals in the house stopped immunizing and implemented full on teaching from age 2.... for 2 of the kids.... the oldest was taught but had full immunization and no diet change... She will never have a normal life... We have 6 kids total.

Jeff Laikind
Jeff Laikind

@Thomas Lynch

"Retarded" is such an awful, incorrect word for this. Autism Spectrum Disorder covers a wide range of behaviors. It ranges from children who can barely function to my daughter who has a 135 IQ, but doesn't always "get" social situations.


The DSM-5 increased the range of behaviors that fall into the Autism Spectrum and subsumed other diagnoses, such as Asperger's. The wide variation between states is an indication of the resources each state is putting into social services and support for children who are borderline different. It would be more informative if the CDC showed how the numbers have changed over the range from severely to mildly autistic.

Michael Mast
Michael Mast

@Rick Smalley  The numbers are real. Facts are real. The numbers aren't related. The facts aren't related. Simply tossing them together, pointing, and yelling LOOK! LOOK! SEE?! SEE?! Doesn't make them any more correlated or casual.

I suspect you really know this and just BELIEVE they're related and really DESPERATELY hope others will be a STUPID as you, agree with you, so you don't feel so unsure in your believes. Don't be fooled. They're even dumber than you if they believe your baseless nonsense.

Denise Badger
Denise Badger

When my son was demonstrating autistic behaviors, early intervention services was quick to dismiss Autism, his pediatrician told us it was autism, and the neuropsych dismissed it also. Pediatricians don't financially gain from autism, there's more holes in your dismissal of these actual children with neurological impairment than Swiss cheese

Michael Mast
Michael Mast

@Robert Lipton  Baseless conjecture. There's no evidence that anyone makes money or has any incentive to diagnose.

Michael Mast
Michael Mast

@Sue Keller @G Powell  You're mistaken. The ones who are glib are those that seek to delude themselves and others where they lack knowledge to feel superior.

Evidence your claims liars.

Bruce Horton
Bruce Horton

@Sue Keller @G Powell  Not true - I have autism, my son has autism, and I am in no way concerned about the increasing number of diagnoses (which is all that can be said about the data in this report - not CASES of autism but DIAGNOSES are increasing). The greater the number that are being recognised and are able thereby to begin therapies (or indeed just be more comfortable with a label that is rather better than "the weird kid") is a good thing rather than a negative. Put me in the 'glib' camp.

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