SPRINGFIELD – A new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released in advance of April's National Autism Awareness Month estimates 1 in 50 U.S. schoolchildren has an autism spectrum disorder.
The new numbers reflect an increase over a March 2012 CDC report estimating one in 88 children – and one in 54 boys and one in 252 girls – has an autism spectrum disorder.
"We are seeing more people than ever before being diagnosed with autism, and some are calling it an epidemic. When I was training in child psychiatry, we considered autism to be relatively rare, about four to five cases per 10,000 children," Dr. Bruce Waslick of Baystate Child Behavioral Health at Baystate Medical Center, said.
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a set of complex developmental disorders for which there is no cure that include autistic disorder, Asperger's disorder, and pervasive development disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS) that typically appear in the first three years of life and are characterized by atypical development in socialization, communication, and behavior.
Symptoms can manifest in a variety of ways including delayed speech or language development, cognitive problems, social interaction problems, stereotypical behaviors such as hand flapping, lack of interest in one's environment, and profound sensory issues such as sensitivity to sound or touch.
While the prevalence of these disorders is increasing exponentially, a cause is still unknown, and there are no medications approved in the United States specifically for the treatment of the core symptoms of these conditions. However, the ConnectMe clinical research program, of which Baystate Medical Center is a part of, is currently evaluating the safety and effectiveness of an investigational drug for children with autism, Asperger's disorder, and PDD-NOS.
If your child is 6 to 12 years old, he or she may be eligible to participate in the ConnectMe clinical research program. The program includes three clinical research studies and will evaluate the safety, tolerability, and effectiveness of an investigational drug on social interaction and communication skills in children with autism, Asperger's disorder, or PDD-NOS.
The ConnectMe-91 study is the program's first study. Children who participate in the first study may be eligible to join the follow-up studies.
To learn more, or to find out if your child may be eligible to participate, contact Waslick or Julie Kingsbury at 794-1136.
There is currently no definitive medical test for use in the diagnosis of autism. Instead, clinicians diagnose the disorder by taking a thorough developmental history along with a behavioral evaluation of the child's actions at home, school, and in other locations.
Direct observation of the child by an experienced and trained clinician is essential. Other types of diagnostic instruments, such as standardized observation interviews, diagnostic criteria interviews and symptom rating scales are often used. Doctors will want to make sure that any symptoms are not a direct result of an underlying medical disorder, so some degree of medical and neurological evaluation may occur, along with at times specialized genetic testing.
Dr. Lawrence Kaplan, director of the Division of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics at Baystate Children's Hospital, noted that positive strides have been made recently in early intervention and education for children with autism spectrum disorder.
"The focus of many of these interventions is to help children to develop joint attention skills, or the ability to recognize the perspective of others and, in turn, project their own perspective on them," he said.
"Beginning these interventions early, even before starting school, correlates with improved social skills. The important message is that while there remain many unknowns about autism spectrum disorder, we do know that developmental and educational interventions can be effective," Kaplan added.
For more information on Child Behavioral Health at Baystate Medical Center, visit www.baystatehealth.org
and click on the Behavioral Health tab under Services.