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Autism prevalence on the rise

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In any given elementary school, 1 in 88 students will fall somewhere on the autism spectrum.

That is according to statistics released last week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2008, the Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network reviewed the legally and ethically obtained evaluation records of children between the ages of birth to 8 years whose parents reside within 14 ADDM sites across the country. Review of those records showed that one in 88 children has some form of autism, including 1 in 54 boys. Both statistics are alarming and a sharp increase from a study conducted just a few years ago, said Barbara Becker-Cottrill, executive director of the Autism Training Center at Marshall University.

"We knew it would probably continue to rise, but I was surprised it was 1 in 88 and 1 in 54 boys," she said. In New Jersey, the prevalence of autism among boys is on in 12.

Although the increasing prevalence is bad news to parents, Becker-Cottrill said she is optimistic that the increase could lead to more much-needed research.

"I'm very excited because it looks like this data is pushing the call for a national agenda on autism, including research," she said. Equally important, she added, is providing appropriate services that children need, such as Applied Behavioral Analysis therapy, or ABA.

Experts agree that ABA therapy and other early intervention programs are key to developing speech, social and cognitive skills an autistic child may lack. West Virginia is one of many states that now requires insurance companies to cover such therapy. The state Legislature in 2011 passed a law requiring insurance to cover $30,000 annually for autism therapies for children under the age of 12 and an additional $2,000 monthly for teens. However, ambiguous language in that bill resulted in insurance companies extending that $30,000 the Legislature meant for therapy and applying it to illness and injury. The Legislature revisited the bill in the 2012 session and cleaned up the language so the money applies to therapy necessary to treat autism.

Becker-Cottrill said she is grateful the Legislature took up the issue and extending insurance coverage to children with autism.

"It's a complex disorder. It's a challenging disorder — not only for the child but challenging for the family, challenging for educators," Becker-Cottrill said. "The take-home message really is these are people who are learners throughout their lives. We just have to give them the strategies that are developed specifically for them so they become lifelong learners."

Although each child and case is different, Becker-Cottrill said children with autism generally exhibit the same characteristics and behaviors. For example, children who don't babble or attempt to talk by age 1 may fall on the spectrum. Children who don't engage in joint attention—the ability to engage another person in something the child finds interesting, such as a toy or an airplane—"is a big one that we know is critically important to social development," Becker-Cottrill said. Children who don't play with peers or siblings or don't engage in pretend play could also fall on the autism spectrum.

Becker-Cottrill said since the CDC report was released, she has fielded many calls from parents concerned that their child's behavior places them on the autism spectrum. She said parents who are concerned should take their child to a diagnostician who will run a battery of tests to determine if the child is autistic. If the child is diagnosed with autism, Becker-Cottrill's team at the Autism Training Center can then take over and develop a strategic plan of action unique to that child.

"We have a parent intake and resource coordinator who will answer any questions they may have," she said. "We take them through the registration process, which is not difficult at all. You must have a diagnosis to be able to send to us and complete a couple of forms. If it's young children, we recommend contacting Birth to Three. Those services are extremely critical. Early intervention can really make a difference. we know that for a fact. If it's a school-aged child, immediately get in touch with county special education coordinator."

Parents can join a variety of widely-available support groups, including the West Virginia chapter of the Autism Society of America. Becker-Cottrill said this and other groups prove to be helpful for parents facing the challenges of autism.

"We encourage parents to get as much info as much as they can and we encourage them to enjoy their children," she said. "They are children first and they face many more challenges … but they are unique wonderful individuals who need a great amount of support."

So what has caused the prevalence of autism to increase so dramatically? It's a combination of things, Becker-Cottrill said, including better educated parents and doctors who know the early warning signs. She thanked the CDC's "Act Early, Learn the Signs" campaign it launched a few years ago.

"Some of my colleagues have been talking about the kids they're seeing now—whether clinics or programs—who have autism spectrum disorder diagnoses are kids who are more on the mild end of the spectrum," Becker-Cottrill said. These are kids who present social difficulties. While some are progressing adequately through school they miss the social piece.

"I think that's probably part of why we're seeing an increase," Becker-Cottrill said. "Those kids may not have gotten the diagnoses years ago and now it looks like they are."

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