KU researchers say new autism estimates shouldn’t set off alarms

It’s an eye-catching statistic: One in 50 U.S. schoolchildren has autism, according to new estimates released this week by the federal Centers for Disease Control.

But autism researchers at Kansas University say the number shouldn’t cause alarm. It doesn’t mean things are any worse than they were five years ago, when an estimate put the rate at 1 in 88 kids. It just means that parents and doctors are doing a better job of spotting autism.

Indeed, the new estimate may mean things are better.

“There’s no reason to think that there’s anything that’s going on that has caused an increase,” said Christa Anderson, an assistant research professor at KU’s Life Span Institute who runs a research lab dedicated to autism study.

John Colombo, the director of the Life Span Institute and a professor of psychology, agreed. What’s really going on more now compared with five or 10 years ago, he said, is that more parents and more pediatricians are recognizing signs of autism, leading to an increased number of diagnoses.

“It’s that we’re getting better at counting these kids,” Colombo said. “We’re getting better at seeing the signs.”

That’s especially the case with some children who function more highly and, over time, have begun to be included in the spectrum of autism.

“Those kids are diagnosed now, whereas I think before they probably weren’t,” Anderson said. “They were slipping through the cracks.”

In recent years, the definition of autism has expanded to include some other disorders, including Asperger’s syndrome, previously considered separate. According to the National Institutes of Mental Health, autism spectrum disorders are developmental conditions that can affect children’s social and communication abilities to degrees ranging from mild to severe.

Though the one-in-50 number doesn’t mean things have gotten worse, Colombo said, it does mean things aren’t good. That’s a high percentage of children to have such a disorder, and it demands further research on the matter, he said.

“I don’t know of any other developmental disorder that’s even close to that,” Colombo said.

Some of that research is going on at KU. In Anderson’s lab, she and other researchers study biological signs of the disorder, as opposed to the behavioral signals traditionally used to diagnose it.

They’ve linked autism to things such as pupil size and hormones present in saliva in children as young as infants.

And they’re testing a theory that beta blockers — cheap medications typically used to treat heart conditions — could be given to children with autism during infancy in order to prevent further development of the disorder.

Much more work is needed, Anderson said, and more pediatricians need to conduct autism screenings on young children. More awareness of the disease can only help.

“That’s where it needs to move,” Anderson said. “It needs to be considered a medical diagnosis.”