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SALT LAKE CITY — When Andrea Griggs was pursuing a degree in early childhood education at the University of Utah, she never recalled talking about autism.
She trusted pediatricians and friends who said there was nothing different about her son, even though she suspected something.
It wasn't until he was 8 years old that he was diagnosed with autism.
"You always hear that parents are devastated when they hear that, but we were so happy to have an answer," Griggs said. "To finally know, 'OK, this is what's going on with our son.'"
The lack of familiarity with autism may have contributed to what appeared to be a nationwide surge in new autism diagnoses over the past decade, experts say. That wave may now be leveling off, according to a report released Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Experts say the autism rate has likely been the same all along, but increased awareness and education means doctors are now able to diagnose most, if not all, of the children on the autism spectrum before adulthood.
According to the report, about 1 in 68 children across the nation were diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder in 2012 — a figure that remains virtually unchanged from 2010.
This is the first time that the U.S. prevalence of autism spectrum disorder has stayed the same across two study years. It is also the second time in a row that the prevalence has not increased in Utah.
The CDC said it isn't prepared to declare that the alarming rise in autism rates has ended. But Dr. Deborah Bilder, a University of Utah associate professor of psychiatry and co-investigator on the study, says she looks at things differently.
"We've had three time points now where we have seen very similar numbers," Bilder said, referring to Utah. "Three time points is a reasonable number of time points."
Between 2008 and 2012, the rate of 8-year-old children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder in Utah rose from about 1.7 percent to 2.1 percent.
Across the dozen or so states participating in the study, the prevalence of autism fluctuated between 1.1 percent and 1.5 percent, with rates holding steady between 2010 and 2012.
Bilder said the relatively flat numbers should alleviate concerns that autism is rising. Some of those fears were fanned by a previous CDC report that found that Utah had the highest rate of autism prevalence among the 14 states participating in the study in 2008.
Utah is now the fourth-highest autism prevalence state out of the 11 participating states.
"Our rate is still higher than the national average, but I think the reason why is because we do a particularly good job in the state of getting as thorough an understanding of the number of children with autism spectrum disorder as possible," Bilder said, pointing to the "tremendous" cooperation between the state's health department, education department and local school officials.
Even as studies and surveys appeared to show a startling rise in autism rates — more than doubling between 2000 and 2010 — experts debated whether the disorder was really becoming more prevalent or whether there was growing awareness about the disorder.
The CDC's latest report is one of many "hints along the way that maybe this is more a matter of understanding versus some epidemic," Bilder said.
The new figures bring the U.S. more in line with studies in the U.K. that found the prevalence of autism spectrum disorder is about 2 percent.
Other studies with different survey methodologies have found similar autism rates.
A household survey conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics found that about 1 in 45 children in the U.S. — or about 2.24 percent — are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.
"These are all sending the message that this disorder occurs in about 2 percent of our children," Bilder said. "This is likely what we will continue to see, and we need to be prepared to identify these kids as early as possible."
The numbers, if they hold, will allow researchers and educators to focus more on improving screening, increasing access to treatment and intervening earlier, she said.
"For us, that's where we'd like to focus," Bilder said. "Let's focus on that understanding and what we can do to impact those numbers so that we can see an improvement in outcomes."
Griggs now has four children, two of whom are on the autism spectrum.
Last year, she went back to school after a 10-year hiatus. This time, she found out that the university offers a class focused specifically on autism.
"We're so much more aware of it," Griggs said. "We have such better tools to screen and diagnose for autism."
She added: "We're actually seeing the real numbers for autism now."