Wednesday, 20 March 2013

1 in 50 children with parent-reported autism in the US

An estimated 1 in 50 US children aged between 6 - 17 years old present with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Attention-grabbing isn't it?

Today's post is based on the source of that soundbite, the publication by Stephen Blumberg and colleagues* (open-access) describing results from data mining of the 2007 and 2011-2012 US National Survey of Children's Health (NSCH) relevant to the numbers of cases of ASD.
Testing 1, 2, 3 @ Wikipedia  

The autism-numbers game is something that has been discussed previously on this blog; most recently with the CDC 1 in 88 estimate in mind (see here) and the even more recent data from New Jersey (see here). The direction of the figures seems only one way - up - but the reason(s) for the increase still remain the source of discussion.

The Blumberg report is open-access, but a few pointers might be useful:

  • Based on 91,642 telephone interviews in 2007 and 95,677 interviews between 2011-2012, parental reports of receipt of an ASD diagnosis (autism, Asperger syndrome, PDD) in offspring were noted, alongside other variables such as age of the child, severity of presentation (mild, moderate, severe) and aged when first diagnosed.
  • Actually in the age range 6-17 years old, data were collected from 63,967 interviews (2007) and 65,556 (2011-2012).
  • Results: "based on parental reports, the prevalence of diagnosed ASD in 2011-2012 was estimated to be 2.00% for children aged 6-17". This compared with 1.16% or 1 in 86 for 6-17 year olds in 2007.
  • The increase in prevalence was noted across the age ranges when they were sub-categorised and perhaps not surprisingly, there was a greater increase in prevalence in boys (2007: 1.8% vs. 2011-2012: 3.23%) than girls (2007: 0.49% vs. 2011-2012: 0.70%). Reported severity also shifted between the various data points (and age ranges) indicating that there was a trend towards less severe presentation (milder ASD) post 2008 diagnosis.
  • The authors were able to some degree, rule out "survey-based measurement error" as being a major contributor to the prevalence increase and there is some discussion about the data not necessarily reflecting "factors that exist prior to or occur just after birth". Indeed the authors very firmly suggest that the changes are a consequence of either "recognition of ASD by health professionals or survey-based measurement changes over time". They also conclude that increases in the prevalence of parent-reported ASD especially for children aged 6-13 "was the result of diagnoses of children with previously unrecognized ASD".
  • As per the report on this story in USA Today "15% to 20% of children who were once diagnosed with autism no longer have the condition". Which raises similar questions as to that of the Fein study on 'outgrowing autism' and 'optimal outcomes' which created so many column inches recently (see here and here).

Bearing in mind that this was a prevalence study not an incidence study (see here for the difference) and issues with regards to response rates (2007: 46.7% vs. 2011-2012: 23.0%), and the sole reliance on parental judgement of variables like severity, the data being presented are indeed stark.

That the rates of autism have seen an inordinate shift from what was once considered a rare condition to something which theoretically should [almost] appear in every school classroom at least once is an eye-opener. As mentioned, the debates rumble on about factors such as better awareness of autism, better case ascertainment, diagnostic switching and broadening, etc. as being the source of the increase. A real increase in cases? Hardly a mention in this latest data. The implication that for example our screening methods and skilled professionals have been able to miss or mis-diagnoses a staggering number of children presenting with an ASD is truly mind-boggling and worthy of an inquiry or two in the US and beyond. Indeed better be quick with that investigation with the DSM-V revision deadline fast approaching and the potential impact that might have on the autism numbers game (including adult numbers**).

So 1 in 50 children with an ASD. What happens next? Sure, many children were described as falling into the mild and moderate ability ranges but as I've said before, terms like 'high-functioning' don't necessarily mean 'can function' with regards to daily living skills, quality of life and onwards translating into positive outcomes in adulthood. Certainly society has to play its role in helping people with autism reach their potential (I have a post scheduled on job interviews and autism coming up soon) and changes are indeed on-going (e.g. the implementation of the Autism Act here in the UK). But let's not be too proud of the achievements done in this area, as still many people on the autism spectrum, their families and concerned others have to fight daily for appropriate recognition, provisions and services.

Another important issue also springs to my mind on the basis of the new prevalence figure. Comorbidity, of which autism is by no means immune from, are not mentioned. The realisation that autism is often very much more than the sum of its triad - soon to be dyad - in terms of comorbidity must surely factor into the potential impact of the latest figures. Not least because of the quite startling health inequalities which seem to be present when an ASD is diagnosed and how as was very recently detailed in the CIPOLD report, such inequality can in some cases, have the most profound and far-reaching effects. I'm not trying to scare anyone; just sayin' that we need to be mindful of the whole person not just their autism.


* Blumberg SJ. et al. Changes in prevalence of parent-reported autism spectrum disorder in school-aged U.S. children: 2007 to 2011–2012. National Health Statistics Reports. 2013: 65.

** Wilson CE. et al. Comparison of ICD-10R, DSM-IV-TR and DSM-5 in an adult autism spectrum disorder diagnostic clinic. J Autism Dev Disord. March 2013.

---------- Wilson, C., Gillan, N., Spain, D., Robertson, D., Roberts, G., Murphy, C., Maltezos, S., Zinkstok, J., Johnston, K., Dardani, C., Ohlsen, C., Deeley, P., Craig, M., Mendez, M., Happé, F., & Murphy, D. (2013). Comparison of ICD-10R, DSM-IV-TR and DSM-5 in an Adult Autism Spectrum Disorder Diagnostic Clinic Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders DOI: 10.1007/s10803-013-1799-6