As the US faces its worst autism epidemic since the 1970s, doctors in the northeast are battling to find answers to a growing question: Why are so many people diagnosed with autism?
A survey by the state Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) found that the rate of autism diagnoses among the state’s children has jumped by nearly three-fold in the past decade.
The rate of cases of autism in the state has increased by more than 30% in the last three years alone.
Dr. Paul Kramar, the state epidemiologist who commissioned the survey, says that while the increase in cases is an indicator of the state seeing an increase in autism cases, the increase also points to a larger picture.
“What we’re seeing is a large increase in people with autism that are not getting diagnosed,” Kramars says.
“That could be a symptom of more people being exposed to the virus that’s circulating in the community and they are not receiving any treatments, because they are just not getting tested.”
The prevalence of autism has skyrocketed since the early 1980s, as states have struggled to cope with the epidemic.
Now, the CDC estimates there are more than 2.4 million Americans with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs), the neurological conditions that can cause social or communication deficits and sensory or language impairments.
Kramar says while the overall prevalence of ASDs has remained relatively stable since the 1980s – about 1.2% in 2015 – autism rates have grown by nearly 15%.
Kramars’ survey of 1,000 people across the US states of Minnesota, Iowa, Ohio, Illinois, Pennsylvania, New York and Virginia, found that 2.7% of the respondents had been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder in the previous year.
The prevalence of the disorder in Minnesota has nearly doubled in the span of five years, jumping from 0.4% to 1.3%.
The increase in Pennsylvania and New York has doubled in five years.
In Illinois, it jumped from 0% to 2.6%.
In Ohio, the rate jumped from 4.4 to 5.6% of adults.
In Pennsylvania, it increased from 2.1% to 3.7%.
In Illinois, the incidence rate for adults was 5.5% in 2017 and jumped to 6.2%, the CDC reports.
In Minnesota, the figure was 8.6%, and in New York, it was 11.6.
In Iowa, it rose to 16.5%.
In Pennsylvania, the percentage of adults with an ASD diagnosis increased from 1.9% in 2016 to 3% in 2018.
In New York State, the prevalence increased from 4% to 6%.
In Iowa, the number of adults in the US with an ASD diagnosis grew from 13% in 2020 to 20% in 2021.
In Pennsylvania and Ohio, rates of autism increased between 2010 and 2021, the same time the pandemic swept through the states.
Krams analysis found that nearly 80% of Americans diagnosed with a disability, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), are not taking their medications or getting tested for the disorder.
He says that can lead to a situation where people with the condition may not get the right diagnosis because they don’t get enough information from doctors.KRAMAR says he and his colleagues want to make sure that people with ASD are given the right treatment, and that they are getting the right help.
The survey also found that, at least in the United States, about one-third of children have a parent with autism, and some have more than one.
“We want to try to identify who’s affected, because the most vulnerable children are often those who have not received any type of treatment,” Krams says.
While the prevalence of ASD in the country has increased, Kramaries team also discovered that autism is much more prevalent among women.
In the last five years alone, women with autism have more autism diagnoses than men.
According to the CDC, there are about 2.5 million people living with an Autism Spectrum Disorder, a condition that can involve social and communication difficulties, and other impairments, and more than 20% of people with ASDs have been diagnosed.
The CDC also says that in the next five years the number in the general population with an autistic spectrum disorder will double.
“Our biggest challenge is to help as many people as we can get to see the effects of this disease, and to provide the appropriate care,” Krama says.