By Sallie Bernard, SafeMinds President and Co-Founder
On November 13th the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released new data showing that 1 in every 45 children in America has autism.
“The estimated ASD prevalence was 2.24% (1 in 45) in 2014, while averaging 1.25% (1 in 80) from 2011 through 2013—a significant increase,” the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) report explains.
These new NCHS numbers are based on surveys of over 12,000 parents. A different CDC effort, based on data collected from school and medical records, known as the Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network (ADDM), has reported a lower rate of 1 in 68 children.
Scientists, medical professionals, educators, autism families and advocacy organizations like SafeMinds have been arguing for many years that the official CDC ADDM statistic of 1 in 68 children is an underestimate. Many believe that the NCHS 1 in 45 number is more accurate.
Notably, the 1 in 45 statistic is the rate reported for the ADDM ‘s New Jersey site, and New Jersey, along with California, is one of two states that has kept the most careful records and used the most consistent reporting methods for a long time.
Researchers believe that the big jump in autism reported in the NCHS survey—from its prior 1 in 80 for 2011-2013 to 1 in 45 in the latest survey—may be partially due to changes in how parents were asked about their children’s disabilities. The prior 2011-2013 NCHS survey data of 1 in 80 may have been an underestimate of autism because of the way the questions were asked, causing confusion to the parents answering the survey. The questionnaire was modified to address this concern for the latest survey year.
Despite this glitch, a comparison of autism rates over the longer term among the NCHS survey and two other widely tracked data sets shows the same upward surge in prevalence. Except for the NCHS period from 2011-2013, when the questions were considered to be confusing, the NCHS survey, the US Department of Education’s IDEA system, and the California Department of Developmental Disabilities Services (CDDS) system all show that over the past two decades, autism numbers have been rising at an unprecedented rate.
Comparison of Autism Prevalence Trends from 3 Data Sets showing consistent upward trend across time.
CDC NCHS Survey Data
IDEA and California DDS Data
Is the increase in autism real?
The mainstream media continues to downplay the rise in autism. The latest news stories on the NCHS survey explain away the 1 in 45 as a methodology change. They focus on the temporary glitch in the questions, without bothering to note the troublesome long-term trend. When stories came out last year about the CDC’s ADDM 1 in 68, which itself reflected an increase from 1 in 88 just a few years prior, the increase was ascribed to better awareness and changes in diagnostic practices.
Yet many scientists who pay attention to the details of autism epidemiology argue that much of the increase cannot be explained by such factors. A careful UC Davis MIND Institute study could attribute only a small amount of the increase in autism to migration patterns or diagnostic practices, attributing the bulk to environmental causes.
The most rigorous scientific analysis to date, conducted by a research scientist who serves on the board of SafeMinds, has found that, “75 to 80 percent of the tracked increase in autism since 1988 is due to an actual increase in the disorder rather than changing diagnostic criteria.”
The ADDM New Jersey scientists have stated that their latest 1 in 45 statistic, a doubling in New Jersey autism prevalence in over a decade, is a true increase and not an artifact of changes in methodology, migration patterns, diagnostic practices, or various other explanations officials have routinely proffered.
Parents, special education teachers, and school administrators across the country have all noticed a significant rise in children with autism and other pervasive developmental delays.
Still more increases lie ahead. The California DDS data show higher rates among their youngest birth cohorts. The New Jersey researcher, Dr .Walter Zahorodny, has recently stated in an interview on the 1 in 45 , “The trend hasn’t plateaued. This is a foretelling of the likelihood of still higher rates.”
What is the cost of the autism tsunami?
A new UC-Davis MIND Institute study calculated the cost of autism. At the official CDC rate of 1 in 68, the current cost of autism is estimated to be $268 billion dollars annually. Yes, that’s BILLION, and that’s today. If prevalence continues to rise – and all indications are that it will – the cost of autism for ASD-related medical, nonmedical and productivity losses is forecasted to reach one TRILLION dollars by 2025, surpassing the cost of Alzheimer’s, diabetes and other major chronic conditions. It is a sum the researchers call “staggering.”
Research into causes an urgent policy priority
When the 1 in 45 number was issued, major autism organizations like Autism Speaks and the Autism Society pointed out the pressing need for services and supports to help those living on the autism spectrum. Yes, we need these and we must have them.
This week SafeMinds called on the Federal government’s Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee (IACC) to convene a workgroup on Family & Caregiver Support.
Early diagnosis and intervention can change the trajectory of autism in many children, improving chances of a more independent life.
High quality supports can enable those with autism to integrate fully into the fabric of their communities, a basic civil right.
As urgent and necessary as it is to help those with autism and to support their families, it is equally imperative that we identify the environmental triggers for autism. As the UC Davis MIND Institute researchers point out in their seminal cost of disease paper , a concerted policy focusing on prevention through identifying environmental causes can be a game-changer in reversing the tsunami of autism.
The burden of ASD is significant for 2015 but alarming for 2025 and, in our opinion, invites debate about policy responses. The first response is that research into the possible modifiable causes of ASD should become a priority as great as other major diseases; prevention is cheaper than cure or than improving the functioning of persons with ASD. If modifiable causes can be found, for example, a toxin, then another policy response would be to eliminate or reduce the amount of that toxin in the environment. A third response is a call for additional research into cost-effective treatments to improve functioning.
Like the MIND Institute, SafeMinds calls on independent scientists, the Federal IACC and specifically its members the CDC and the National Institutes of Health, to make understanding the environmental factors contributing to autism a priority of the highest concern. We must find out the modifiable causes in order to prevent future cases.
And it’s not just about autism. America’s children are experiencing a host of health problems as compared to children in other industrialized countries. American childhood obesity, juvenile cancer, and juvenile diabetes rates are all too high. More than 1 child in 6 has a learning disability; 1 child in 9 has asthma; and 1 in 25 has a severe food allergy. Those with autism are at an especially high risk of developing serious co-occurring medical conditions like gastrointestinal, immune, metabolic and mental health problems.
Be proactive about your own child’s health
I’m hearing about more and more doctors with large pediatric practices who are counseling soon-to-be and new parents about alternative, healthy lifestyle changes and who are working collaboratively with them about minimizing possible harms to their children from healthcare interventions. These doctors are reporting significantly lower autism rates among the children of these patients than the national averages of 1-2% that the CDC reports. We need to learn from these doctors. Are there methods available right now that can reverse the autism tsunami?
If you want to increase your chances of raising a healthy child, what should you do? A first step is to seek out the best health information from doctors who have the lowest rates of autism in their practices. These medical professionals, like this one, this one, this one, and this one, offer intriguing advice to expectant parents:
1) Birth vaginally when possible: vaginal birth confers lifelong health benefits and inoculates your newborn with beneficial bacteria.
2) Breastfeed: human breast milk is loaded with protective antibodies and nutrients and hundreds of studies show that breastfeeding is the best choice for your baby’s health and long-term well-being.
3) Eat real food: Children and adults thrive when we eat fresh whole foods that are recognizable as foods, not granola bars, vitamin-enhanced water, or artificially-sweetened low-fat whipped topping. A car cannot run on the wrong kind of gas. Neither can the human body.
4) Avoid antibiotics: Antibiotics disrupt the beneficial bacteria that live in and on our bodies.
5) Avoid mercury: Children with autism are often found to have high levels of mercury in their bodies, and detoxifying them from heavy metal poisoning often leads to a lessening of their symptoms. Mercury is still used as a preservative in the multi-dose flu vaccine and high levels of mercury in some fish can be harmful to pregnant women and small children.
6) Don’t give your baby acetaminophen: This Duke University Medical School professor explains why.
7) Make sure your family is getting enough vitamin D: Vitamin D is crucial for a healthy immune system and best absorbed through sunlight on the skin, but most American children are deficient in vitamin D, which is thought to be a contributing factor to poor immunological health.
8) Be pro probiotics: A healthy immune system relies on beneficial bacteria to fight off diseases. Take probiotics, eat fermented foods, and eliminate sugar to foster the growth of beneficial bacteria in your child’s body.
9) De-stress: Stress and anxiety cause inflammation in the body, which can contribute to immune dysfunction. Find ways to relax (yoga, meditation, exercise) and teach them to your children as well.
10) Do your homework on vaccination: The current American vaccine schedule, which is the most aggressive in the world, may be altering your child’s immune system. If you do only one vaccine at a time and your child has a negative reaction, you will know which vaccines to avoid in the future. If you have a family history of autism or auto-immune disorders, the risks of vaccinating may increase. Find a doctor who will work with you on a vaccine schedule that fits your situation. In this age of personalized medicine, we know that one size does not fit all.
For Further Reading:
How to Raise a Healthy Child … In Spite of Your Doctor by Robert Mendelsohn, M.D.
The Vaccine Book by Robert Sears, M.D.
Your Baby, Your Way by Jennifer Margulis, Ph.D.
HOW SAFEMINDS IS HELPING
Bringing matters like these to your attention is one example of how SafeMinds is helping create a safer world for our children. You can help us continue our work by donating to our Policy and Justice Fund, our Making a Difference Research Fund, or our Parent and Family Education Fund, or by contacting us to volunteer.
Sallie Bernard is co-founder and president of SafeMinds. She has testified before Congress, presented to the Institute of Medicine, published a number of research papers and letters in science journals, and participates in several government committees addressing the effect of mercury on neurodevelopment. She previously served as board chair for CAN and executive director of the New Jersey chapter, helping to secure millions of dollars for autism research and treatment. She is a member of the board of directors of Autism Speaks and a member of the Founders Forum for The Autism Center of UMDNJ in New Jersey.
Sallie is the founder and former president of ARC Research, a full service market research and marketing consulting firm, which she sold in 2004. She graduated with honors from Radcliffe College, Harvard University, in 1979. She is married, with three children, one of whom has autism. She lives in Aspen, Colorado.