Autism rates across the country continue to climb, but for the first time, the demographics of children diagnosed with the developmental disability are starting to shift in a big way, according to new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A report out Thursday in the federal agency’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report shows that 1 in 36 children, or 2.8%, have autism.

The new estimate is based on information gathered on 8-year-old children in 11 communities in 2020 by the CDC’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring, or ADDM, network.

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Results from a similar analysis released in late 2021 that was based on data from 2018 had pegged autism prevalence at 1 in 44 kids. By comparison, in 2000, the rate was 1 in 150.

“We suspect this is due to increased awareness, leading to more children being identified with autism,” Dr. Karen Remley, director of the CDC’s National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities, said of the increase.

To assess autism prevalence, clinicians searched records to identify children in the communities studied who have been diagnosed with autism by a local health care provider or who have been classified as having the developmental disability by the special education system.

Notably, the latest data revealed big changes in the demographics of children with autism. For the first time ever, the percentages of Black, Hispanic and Asian or Pacific Islander 8-year-olds with autism were higher than white children, which CDC officials said may be a sign that efforts to improve screening, awareness and access to services among traditionally underserved populations are working.

But, Black children with autism were still more likely than those from other groups to have co-occurring intellectual disability.

Remley was quick to point out that the data is not representative of the entire U.S., but she noted that “we observed consistent patterns across the 11 ADDM communities.”

The report also marks the first time that the autism rate among 8-year-old girls has exceeded 1%, though prevalence among boys remained four times higher.

Across the communities studied, autism prevalence ranged from 1 in 43, or 2.3%, of children in Maryland to 1 in 22, or 4.5%, in California. CDC officials said that could be due to differences in how communities are identifying children on the spectrum.

Alycia Halladay, chief science officer at the Autism Science Foundation, said the new data suggests that there is better awareness of autism, particularly among minority communities. But, given that a large percentage of Black children with autism also had intellectual disability and likely had more pronounced symptoms, she said that “there is still a way to go.”

“The numbers are moving closer to numbers obtained in South Korea, which screened all kids in schools. However, we cannot rule out that some of the rise may be due to more cases,” Halladay said.

The CDC also released a separate report Thursday looking at 4-year-olds in 2020 in the same 11 communities. It found that children who were age 4 in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic were less likely to be evaluated for or identified as having autism as compared to the 8-year-old children when they were the same age.

“Disruptions due to the pandemic in the timely evaluation of children and delays in connecting children to the services and support they need could have long-lasting effects,” said the CDC’s Remley. “The data in this report can help communities better understand how the pandemic impacted early identification of autism in young children and anticipate future needs as these children get older.”

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