MONDAY, Nov. 26, 2018 (HealthDay News) -- A new government study finds that roughly 1 in 40 American children has autism, a huge jump from the previous estimate of 1 in every 59 children.
The survey asked parents of more than 43,000 children between the ages of 3 and 17 whether or not their children had ever been diagnosed with autism or an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and whether the child in question still struggled with an ASD.
Study author Michael Kogan offered several explanations for the discrepancy between the previous figure from the U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the new figures from the 2016 National Survey of Children's Health.
First, he noted that "because there is no biological test for ASD, it is difficult to track." And he added that different data collection methods can produce very different results.
For example, Kogan pointed out that the CDC only collected information on 8-year-olds living in 11 residential areas. By comparison, the latest survey looked at a far wider age range, and is the first such effort to be national in scope.
The latest figure is also based on a more recent time frame than the CDC's last review in 2014, he noted. And his team's conclusions stem from information collected from parents, while the CDC conducted a review of medical and school records.
"I don't know if 'surprised' is the word I would use," Kogan said about his team's findings. "We began the study knowing that the prevalence of ASD had been increasing for the last 30 to 40 years."
Kogan serves as director of the Office of Epidemiology and Research in the Maternal and Child Health Bureau of the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration.
Apart from arriving at an estimate for autism prevalence, the investigators noted that more than a quarter of children with ASD (27 percent) were taking some type of medication to tackle the disorder's symptoms. Nearly two-thirds (64 percent) had been receiving behavioral treatment in the year leading up to the survey.
But parents of children with autism indicated that their children had greater care needs -- and had more trouble getting that care -- relative to those struggling with other comparable conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), depression and anxiety, Down syndrome, behavioral or conduct problems, intellectual or learning disabilities, and/or Tourette syndrome.
Specifically, parents said they were 44 percent more likely to have trouble getting mental health care, 24 percent less likely to get care coordination help, and 23 percent less likely to have a "medical home" for their child, meaning a single team of caregivers.
The findings were published online Nov. 26 in the journal Pediatrics.
Thomas Frazier, chief science officer at Autism Speaks, expressed little surprise at the findings.
"They are generally consistent with previous parent surveys and other direct prevalence studies where researchers directly screen for and attempt to identify autism," he said, adding that the CDC numbers are "probably a bit conservative."
As to why estimates have generally been rising in recent years, Frazier dismissed the idea that the overall share of American children who have autism is growing that rapidly, suggesting instead that analysis methods have become "more liberal and inclusive."
As to the broader question of access to care, Frazier agreed that there is an urgent need to provide better access to early screening and subsequent treatment, particularly for low-income families.
"At Autism Speaks, we have attempted through our Autism Treatment Network to increase pediatricians' and family practice doctors' awareness and ability to screen," in addition to providing "gold-standard" medical care, he said.
And Frazier added that "early, intensive developmental and behavioral interventions are effective," especially when parents get the training they need to be better positioned to help their child.
According to Autism Speaks, autism spectrum disorder refers to a "broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication."
There's more on accessing autism care at Autism Speaks.