Autism rates are increasing yet again, according to new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention which finds for the first time that more than 2% of American children have the developmental disability.

The CDC said Thursday that 1 in 44 children, or 2.3%, are on the autism spectrum.

The data comes from a report published in the agency’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report that looked at data from 2018 on 8-year-old children in 11 communities across the country.

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By comparison, a similar report released in March 2020 that was based on data from 2016 found that 1 in 54 children had autism. In 2000, the rate was 1 in 150.

“We can’t say for sure what is behind the increase in prevalence,” said Matt Maenner, an epidemiologist at the CDC’s National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities who led the new study. “But it may be due to the way children are identified, diagnosed and served in their communities, as well as continued reductions in racial or socioeconomic disparities.”

Autism prevalence varied significantly across the communities studied, researchers said. At the low end, 1 in 60 children in Missouri — or 1.7% — were on the spectrum in the latest study. Meanwhile, the highest rate was seen in California were 1 in 26 children, or 3.9%, qualified for a diagnosis.

There were also trends by race with fewer cases of autism seen in Hispanic children compared to white or Black kids, the study found. Intellectual disability was more common, however, among Black children with autism.

Like in previous reports, the CDC found that autism is four times more common in boys than girls and intellectual disability affects slightly more than a third of kids on the spectrum.

Maenner noted that the communities involved in the autism prevalence research have changed over time. And, the latest study used a slightly different method to identify children with autism.

Previously, clinicians with the CDC’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring network spent time reviewing the health and educational records for children in each community to determine if they had documented symptoms meeting the network’s definition of autism. The current method combs records to find children who have been diagnosed by a local health care provider or who have been determined to have autism by the special education system.

A CDC analysis earlier this year found that the two methods yield very similar results, but the agency said that the new approach allows for results to be published much faster.

Even as autism rates continue to climb, CDC researchers noted that they are seeing some positive signs. A second report also released Thursday in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report looking at children born in 2014 found that they were 50% more likely to be diagnosed with autism by age 4 than kids who were born in 2010.

“The substantial progress in early identification is good news because the earlier that children are identified with autism, the sooner they can be connected to services and support,” said Dr. Karen Remley, director of CDC’s National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities. “Accessing these services at younger ages can help children do better in school and have a better quality of life.”

Both of the new reports are based on data collected in communities in Arizona, Arkansas, California, Georgia, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, Tennessee, Utah and Wisconsin.

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