The new statistical findings, from the Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network, reflect data from more than 10,886 children. The results are available in the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
In 2014, the most recent year for which comprehensive statistics are available, researchers found that 1.7 percent of 8-year-olds (1 in 59) had a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder. That compares with 1.5 percent (1 in 68) in 2012.
The increase could indicate an improvement in the identification of autism spectrum disorder, particularly in previously underdiagnosed minority populations, among other factors. Prevalence estimates in the 11 communities represented in the report ranged widely, from a low of 1.3 percent to a high of 3 percent.
"I think this shows that the prevalence of autism in the US is continuing to show signs of steadying," says John N. Constantino, professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at Washington University in St. Louis and one of the study's authors.
"Unfortunately, however, it appears many kids still aren't getting diagnosed early enough to get maximum benefit from therapy."
The older a child is at diagnosis, the harder it is for health-care professionals to intervene and change the trajectory of autism spectrum disorder.
Children with autism often face social challenges, communication problems, and intellectual deficits, but some of those hurdles may be overcome with early, intensive therapy.
Some 39 percent of the children in the study who were diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder didn't receive such a diagnosis until they were over 4 years of age, Constantino says.
"It remains a priority to diagnose autism earlier and begin intervention sooner, especially given recent research suggesting that higher intensity and duration of early developmental therapy for children with autism is associated with significant improvements in outcomes."
"Despite our greater awareness, we are not effective yet in early detection," adds coauthor Walter Zahorodny, an associate professor of pediatrics at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School. "Our goal should be systematic, universal screening that pediatricians and other health providers provide at regular visits starting at 18 months to identify ASD as soon as possible."
A higher percentage of white children than African-American and Hispanic children were identified as having autism spectrum disorder. That gap, however, is narrowing, which may be due in part to increased efforts to diagnosis children in minority communities.
Despite the narrowing gap, minority children with autism are disproportionately affected by intellectual disabilities related to the disorder. Some 44 percent of African-American children with autism also have intellectual disabilities, compared with 22 percent of white children with the disorder.
"That underscores the necessity of resolving racial disparities in access to diagnostic and therapeutic services," Constantino says.
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