Autism sample in Arapahoe County higher than nation’s
posted by: Guest Blogger
A Colorado test county has seen a 60 percent spike in diagnosed autism over two years, far higher than an already-worrisome surge in national rates for the disorder, the CDC and state health officials said Thursday.
The Colorado segment of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s national monitoring project found 1 in 85 Arapahoe County 8-year-olds had some level of autism in 2008, or 11.8 cases per 1,000 kids. That was a 60 percent jump from the last comparable study in 2006.
The boost in Arapahoe County numbers was higher than the 23 percent national increase in childhood autism cases. The CDC’s national composite shows 1 out of 88 children with an “autism spectrum disorder,” across monitoring areas in 14 states.
Nationally, the rate has increased 68.7 percent over eight years of study.
Both the local and national increases renew the search for answers on whether more kids are developing autism or whether doctors, families and education experts are recognizing more existing cases.
Health officials say they don’t yet know, and many parents admit their hunches are unproved.
“It’s one of the toughest questions we get,” said Bridget Cessar, interim director of the Autism Society of Colorado. “What we know is an inch. What we need to know is 20,000 miles.”
Grateful for spotlight
Shannon Zimmerman of Westminster, the mother of a severely autistic 8-year-old boy named Logan, is grateful for the new spotlight shone by the study. Like many parents of autistic children, she worries about who will be willing to care for a burgeoning generation of troubled children decades from now.
“It needs to be addressed with a sense of urgency, not complacency,” Zimmerman said. Logan, who also is deaf, was diagnosed with autism at 3½.
“We don’t know the extent to which the data reflect better autism identification and reporting or a true increase in case numbers, but these data do show autism spectrum disorders continue to be a tremendous public-health concern,” said Dr. Lisa Miller, a state epidemiologist and principal investigator of the Colorado Autism and Development Disabilities Monitoring Network.
“One thing the data tells us with certainty — there are more children and families that need help,” said CDC director Dr. Thomas Frieden.
Autism statistics tend to raise more questions than solve them, officials acknowledge. The Arapahoe County statistics show rates of autism at 1 in 50 boys age 8 but only 1 in 345 girls.
The state’s studies concentrated on Arapahoe County because schools there gave the best access to student records, an important component of the reviews. Cases are not identified by name or other personal markers.
The debate rages about causes of the range of behaviors called “autism spectrum disorder.” Some have posited long-term changes in diet, others exposure to environmental toxins or triggers. Some studies have shown a genetic component, but more than one gene could be involved, requiring far more research.
Public-health researchers go out of their way to say there has been no connection proved between autism and chemicals in childhood vaccines; a British study claiming a link has been thoroughly discredited.
“It’s going to be a while before we know. There’s a huge complex of information out there,” said Cordelia Robinson, a principal investigator on Colorado’s portion of the study.
Availability of services
Growth in recognizing behaviors as autism also comes from increased health and educational services in minority communities, where documented cases have shot up.
A diagnosis can help families access state insurance, education or human-services rules supporting treatment, though such support doesn’t cover all costs.
Recognition of what she calls an “epidemic” is some comfort to Zimmerman, whose son functions at the level of an 18-month-old and can be dangerous to himself and others. Parents such as Zimmerman, facing exhausting therapy demands and huge care bills, still battle for help within strapped school systems and shrinking state budgets.
Zimmerman dismisses vaccine theories but does believe there are genetic predispositions triggered by new environmental dangers. Logan’s behavior grew less volatile over months when she put him on a gluten-free diet, she said.
She knows the “something in the water” theories are vague but also argues that other childhood conditions are not growing as rapidly as autism.
“Look at the numbers,” Zimmerman said. “Autism has this huge, huge balloon in it. Something is going on.”