1 in 36 children are now autistic, and that is not a bad thing
When I started working in the field of autism in 2011, prevalence rates in the United States were just less than 1%, with 1 in 110 children being diagnosed as autistic. According to new data just published by the same research group at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately one in 36 8-year-old children in the United States is now autistic. This marks an increase of nearly 20% from the CDC’s previous estimate of one in 44 from 2018 and a 122% increase from those 2011 numbers. There are two reasons that, while initially concerning, the context of this dramatic rise is actually encouraging.
First, it is widely accepted in the academic community that this upward trend is attributable to increased awareness and identification rather than an actual rise in prevalence. In fact, in the most recent data, for the first time, the prevalence of autism in Black, Hispanic, and Asian or Pacific Islander children is higher than in White children, indicating that some racial disparities in autism identification have been reduced. The report also shows that autism is now 3.8 times more common in boys than girls, which is slightly less than the 4.2-to-1 ratio found in the 2018 data.
The second reason these numbers are not cause for panic is that we now know that many autistic individuals will go on to enriching lives in which they both contribute to and benefit from the societies in which they live. By definition, autism is impairing – it makes the individual’s life difficult. That said, there is growing recognition that this impairment can be reduced by an understanding and accommodating society. In many cases, these accommodations are made possible when an individual is diagnosed, indicating the importance of these rising rates.
Just as an individual with a physical disability finds their impairment reduced by ramps, an autistic individual sees their quality of life improve as educational, vocational, and public institutions take, for instance, sensory processing differences into account, and people in parks and supermarkets exercise more patience and understanding with their neurodiverse counterparts. This does not detract from the difficulties encountered by autistic individuals with high support needs or that of their families. While that population probably no longer contributes to the rising prevalence rates, they remain in need of significant care and resources.
The CDC numbers cannot continue to rise forever, and will likely plateau in the near future. For now, though, we should interpret those numbers in the encouraging context of children and families receiving the support they need in order to maximize their potential to contribute to and benefit from being part of society.