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Utah autism rate doubled between '02 and '08, data shows

By Wendy Leonard  |  Posted May 6th, 2011 @ 8:38pm

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SALT LAKE CITY — It was the "mother of all meltdowns" and Laura Anderson has the bruises to prove it. But it is anyone's guess as to what caused her 14-year-old autistic son to throw a fit earlier this week.

She thinks it could have been the chicken nuggets. They weren't his favorite brand. Then again, it could have been a slight change in his normal routine or even the recent changes in the weather.

"It's our life," Anderson said. "It's what I'm used to and I have nothing else to compare it to."

She is not alone in her struggle, as nearly 10,000 children in the state of Utah have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), which includes autism, Asberger's and Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS).

With the newly implemented Utah Registry of Autism and Developmental Disorders, researchers have found that autism numbers in Utah are on the rise — in fact, they doubled between 2002 and 2008, making it a one in 77 chance that an 8-year-old child in Utah is autistic.

Nationwide, 1 in 111 children were diagnosed with autism in 2006, according to the latest information from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"We are going into 15 years of having the autism classification (in schools) and we see no sign of it leveling off," said Jocelyn Taylor, an education specialist with the Utah State Office of Education.

Of the 150 babies born each day in Utah, new research reveals that at least two are at risk of developing an ASD, up from the 2002 rate of one in every 154 babies born being diagnosed later in life, according to the University of Utah study, which was published this week in the online Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

"The individuals that have autism spectrum disorders and their families have extremely complex social, emotional, educational, medical and therapeutic needs so it is a very complex situation and it isn't something that can fit nicely into a box," said Dr. Harper Randall, medical director for children with special health care needs at the Utah Department of Health.

She said further research as well as funding is necessary to understand autism better.

Recent heightened awareness of the disorder has contributed to the increase in prevalence, as well as the American Academy of Pediatric's guidance for autism screenings to be done at 18-month and 24-month wellness checks. But experts believe there is still more autism and the new research points them in the direction of finding out why and how it is likely caused.

Early diagnosis and referral is important "because that's where we're going to improve outcomes," Randall said.

The U. is one of 14 sites working with the CDC to collect more relevant 2010 data, but so far, U. researcher and lead author of the study, Judith Pinborough-Zimmerman, said the numbers are concerning, as "we thought we'd see a plateau."

"These changing numbers represent the stories and faces of individual children with ASD," she said. "At the present time, we don't know how to cure or prevent ASD. Our latest findings reinforce our belief that autism will place significant demands on our health and education system. We need to continue planning for the health and well-being of our children."

Additional research and funding is necessary for increased understanding of autism and the most recent numbers, Pinborough-Zimmerman said, are a step in the right direction to encourage cooperation of health care organizations and school systems worldwide.

"If you think autism isn't going to touch you somehow in your life, you are sadly mistaken," Anderson said. "It is in our communities, it is in our schools. It will be in our workplaces. It is part of our society and these children are our future."


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