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CHAPEL HILL About 1 in 88 American children have autism or similar disorders, and the prevalence in North Carolina is even higher, according to new estimates from the Centers For Disease Control.

That’s a jump of 23 percent since the last national estimate of autism spectrum disorders two years ago.

The numbers are just estimates, and researchers acknowledge that the increase is attributable at least partly – and perhaps greatly – to increased awareness about the disorders and greater ability to diagnose them, rather than more kids developing ASDs.

ASDs are developmental disorders that include autism and Asperger’s syndrome, and are characterized by trouble with social interaction and communication. Symptoms usually start before the age of 3, and include repetitive behavior such as repeating actions or words, and obsessive adherence to routines.

The CDC estimates the prevalence of autism spectrum disorders in the nation every two years using a monitoring network with teams at 14 sites across the country that tally cases among 8-year-olds. The new numbers were based on data from 2008.

The North Carolina estimate came from an 11-county chunk of the central part of state including Wake, Durham, Orange and Chatham counties, and the major Triad counties. In that area, nearly 1 in 70 children were estimated to have been diagnosed – up from 1 in 96 in the 2010 report.

One valuable aspect of the estimate is that it helps the public and policy makers understand how big a problem ASDs are, said Julie Daniels, an associate professor of epidemiology in maternal and child health at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, and leader of the team responsible for the North Carolina part of the estimate.

Among other things, more attention for ASDs could lead to diagnosis at earlier ages, which is important because early treatment has been shown to improve patient outcomes.

“For most, while it doesn’t cure, it helps parents and kids handle things better, gives them a better quality of life, and allows them to do better in managing the symptoms,” Daniels said.

ASDs are significantly more common in males, and in this state the new estimates suggest 1 in 43 boys have one of the disorders, compared with 1 in 196 girls.

Support in Wake County

The numbers are up because of more awareness and better diagnosis. But they also seem to reflect more actual cases here, in part because families with ASDs move to Wake County from places where less support is available, such as educators trained to work with kids who have the disorders, said David Laxton, a spokesman for the Autism Society of North Carolina.

Whatever the mix of reasons, it’s clear from phone calls and other interactions with parents, educators and health care providers that the sheer number of cases in North Carolina is up, Laxton said.

Indeed, the society’s annual conference today and Saturday in Charlotte reached capacity this year for the first time.

“We had to turn people away,” Laxton said.

No matter the reasons for the jump in the new CDC estimates, they can only help by drawing yet more attention to the estimated 60,000 people in the state affected by ASDs, Laxton said. Thousands are on waiting lists for state-funded services such as vocational training and employment programs that could help them be better-functioning members of society.

“There are a lot of misconceptions, but they can succeed, they can live in the community, and get a job and drive,” he said. “But if we’re going to make sure they’re a help to society, we need to invest in that because it costs far less to help them succeed than it costs in the long run if you don’t.”


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