There is much concern about the increase in the rate of children diagnosed with autism (Autism Spectrum Disorder-ASD). The Centers for Disease Control reports that in 2000, one out of every 150 children was diagnosed with ASD, and in 2010, one out of every 68 is diagnosed. This is a huge increase in just a short period of time. There are several possible reasons why there are more now than there were before. Recent changes in the definition of autism (the diagnostic criteria) account for a significant part of the new cases. Children may have been diagnosed differently before the new criteria were published. Studies of where these autistic children live show that they are more concentrated in areas where there are hospitals and clinics. Professionals are available who can accurately diagnose and treat children with ASD, and therefore more children are identified. It is also possible that we as a society are more informed about autism and more likely to seek a diagnosis for our children. Ongoing studies are seeking an explanation for the increase.
To diagnose a child with ASD, a mental health professional uses the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the DSM-5). According to the DSM-5, all of the following must be true before a child is diagnosed as having Autism Spectrum Disorder:
- The child does not communicate and interact with other children as well as expected for her age. Perhaps she is not able to recognize and interpret facial expressions.
- At least two different types of “restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior” exist. For example, the child may want to play with one toy in exactly the same way over and over again.
- The symptoms must be present early in the child’s life. An older child may not have the same severity of symptoms, because he has learned how to manage them, but the symptoms existed earlier.
- The symptoms affect normal day-to-day functioning.
- There is not a better explanation for the symptoms. For example, the child may have a cognitive disability that better explains his symptoms.
To learn more about ASD and what to look for in your child, you might want to read Signs and Symptoms available from the CDC. The diagnostic criteria include a range of symptoms so wide that some autistic children function very well with proper training, yet others will never function well. The earlier a child is diagnosed, the quicker he or she can get help. If you have concerns about your child, a visit to the pediatrician is the first step.