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Is today's autism the same as yesterday's?

A flurry of stories being posted today, such as these by USA Today and the Associated Press, lay out the puzzle posed by new findings about the rising incidence of autism: Are we seeing vastly more children with this disorder or is it just that doctors are diagnosing it more frequently?

What prompted this new round of questioning about what many consider to be an autism epidemic are two new studies suggesting that the prevalence of children with autism spectrum disorders has grown to roughly one in 100 from previous estimates of one in 150. One is in this month's issue of the journal Pediatrics; the other, still unpublished, is from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which held a news conference on Friday to discuss its findings in light of the data in Pediatrics. Unfortunately, neither provides a clear-cut answer as to the source of this increase.

On the one hand, there are reasons to believe that more children today could be suffering from autism. Researchers such as Stanford's Antonio Hardan, MD, note, for instance, that children born prematurely are more prone to this disorder, and, of course, the number of preemies has increased markedly in recent decades. Although vaccines have been ruled out as a cause of the increase, there are other possible environmental factors to be studied.

On the other hand, there is a consensus among researchers, including Hardan, that doctors have become more attuned to recognizing symptoms of autism and are making the diagnosis more often today than they would have a decade or so ago. While this awareness is a welcome change, it may mean that the autism label is being applied more loosely than it was in the past.

Interestingly, the study in Pediatrics, which was based on a survey of 78,000 parents, revealed that 40 percent of respondents who reported their kids had received such a diagnosis said their children no longer had the disorder. That is a remarkable change given that autism was once considered a permanent condition. This could show how early intervention helps children to overcome the disorder, how the diagnosis is being used more liberally or both.

You can go to the American Academy of Pediatrics Web site to download a helpful overview of the issues raised by the new research.

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