A new government survey shows 1 in 45 children (ages 3 to 17) are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a significant increase from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's previously estimated prevalence of 1 in 68 from 2011-2013.
The increase, in part, could be attributed to a change in survey questions and questions more specific to ASD.
But the increasing prevalence still has advocates and educators talking about how our community works with children who have autism and what additional resources are needed.
"Statistics definitely guide professionals and governments to figure out what services are needed in our community," said Dr. Kelly O'Laughlin, a clinical psychologist with ABC of N.C. Clinic and Child Development Center for children with autism in Winston-Salem.
"But statistics are not the sole way that we need to look at these issues with autism. We need to focus on getting early intervention services across cultures, ethnicities. Plus, providing a lifespan of services from childhood to adulthood," O'Laughlin added.
In a statement from the national advocacy group Autism Speaks, epidemiologist Michael Rosanoff said the new numbers don't replace the CDC's official 1 in 68 estimates.
However, "The 1 in 45 estimates is not surprising and is likely a more accurate representation of autism prevalence in the United States. This means that 2 percent of children in the U.S. are living with autism. The earlier they have access to care, services and treatment, the more likely they are to progress." Rosanoff is Autism Speaks' director for public health research.
As the prevalence increases, school systems may need to change how they work with children diagnosed with autism, said John Thomas, a consultant with Guilford County Schools who works closely with the district's Exceptional Children (E.C.) programs.
"The interesting aspect is in autism, the best practices are pretty clear. We’ve got really good data to show what works with our kids," he pointed out. "Now let’s make sure our teachers understand those tools regardless of the kinds of classrooms we’re dealing with. That’s the necessity at this point."
Thomas said all teachers, not just E.C. teachers, will need training to identify symptoms of autism and learn how to work with children on the spectrum. That will take both traditional professional development, plus, "It’s going to have to include co-teaching between our experts who understand autism and the teachers, so teachers feel confident in what they have to do with their kids."
Dr. Alicia Tate, director of the Department of Exceptional Children for Guilford County Schools, said figuring out the best practices for students with autism is just part of the puzzle of meeting the needs of all kids.
Change will take investment and time, Thomas added, "But everybody is committed I think to make sure that change occurs for all the kids."