Autism is on the rise in young children, according to a new study.
The study, published Thursday in the journal Pediatrics, found autism rates had tripled over the past 16 years.
Researchers from Rutgers University examined more than 4,000 8-year-olds in the New York and New Jersey areas.
They said the sharp rise in autism rates is largely due to greater awareness, better diagnostic tools and a broader definition of autism. The researchers also noted that the largest increases in diagnoses were among affluent children, concluding that children in underserved communities do not have the same access to medical resources.
Autism, also known as autism spectrum disorder, is defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as a «developmental deficit that can lead to significant social, communication, and behavioral problems.»
Nationally, about one in 44 children has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, according to the CDC.
The disorder begins before a child turns 3 and can last a lifetime, although symptoms can improve and vary, the CDC notes.
«You want to talk to your child’s pediatrician about this because early intervention makes a big difference,» said ABC News Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Jennifer Ashton, adding, «Remember that these kids [with autism spectrum disorder] grow into teenagers and adults, so the more we can help them, the better their outcomes will be.»
What you need to know about autism
According to the CDC, people with autism exhibit a wide variety of traits affecting communication, behavior and socialization.
“Spectrum” means that there is a wide range of symptoms and severity.
A child of any race, socioeconomic status, or ethnic group can have ASD. Boys, however, are four times more likely to be diagnosed with autism than girls, according to a study of 8-year-olds. Children who have an autistic sibling, and especially a twin, are more likely to have autism. People with developmental disabilities or genetic and chromosomal conditions such as Down syndrome are also more likely to have ASD. There is also evidence that children born to older parents have an increased risk of autism, according to several studies.
Autism can be identified in early childhood, although most children are diagnosed after age 2. There is no medical test to diagnose autism, so doctors monitor a child’s behavior and development to make a diagnosis, according to the CDC.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all children be formally screened for Autism Spectrum Disorder when they visit Healthy 18- and 24-month-olds. The AAP says pediatricians will begin monitoring babies during their first health visit by observing their behaviors.
“It is these observations – in combination with family history, health examinations and parental perspectives – that help pediatric primary care providers identify children at risk for ASD,” the AAP states on its site. website.
The CDC notes that in some cases, people are not diagnosed with autism until adolescence or adulthood.
Experts say, however, that early detection of ASDs is essential, as is early intervention.
Early signs of autism in children may include, but are not limited to, little or no smiling and limited eye contact at 6 months; little or no babbling, pointing or responding to their name at 12 months; and few or no meaningful two-word phrases at 24 months, according to the CDC.
Additional signs of autism can include delayed social interactions, repetitive behaviors, or limited interest in activities and sensory issues like sensitivity to noise or sound.
“Someone can have a communication delay but not a motor delay,” Dr. Jen Clark, a New York-based clinical psychologist and autism expert, told ABC News last year. «They can experience sounds and lights in a very different way than you and me and sometimes they can experience sensory overload and they can wear headphones and that will help make the noise less severe but they can also avoid certain situations. where it’s just too overwhelming.
Treatment takes many different forms, from mental health therapy to occupational, physical, and speech therapy. Sometimes medication can be helpful for things related to ASD, like mood issues or an inability to concentrate.
ABC News’ Yi-Jin Yu and Dr. David Oczos, DO, a member of ABC News’ Medical Unit, contributed to this report.