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EXPERT AVAILABLE: Prevalence of Children with Autism Increasing; No One Factor to Blame, MU Researcher Says

April 2nd, 2012

Story Contact: Jesslyn Chew,

The views and opinions expressed in this “for expert comment” release are based on research and/or opinions of the researcher(s) and/or faculty member(s) and do not reflect the University’s official stance.

COLUMBIA, Mo. – The number of children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) has increased nearly 80 percent in the past decade, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently announced. Currently, one in 88 children receives an ASD diagnosis, and of those children diagnosed, boys outnumber girls 5-to-1. Janet Farmer, director of academic programs at the University of Missouri Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders, says many factors have contributed to the increase.

“It’s difficult to pinpoint one cause, yet one explanation for the dramatic increase is that the diagnostic criteria for ASD have expanded,” Farmer says. “Children with normal intellectual functioning who previously would not have met the criteria now are receiving ASD diagnoses.”

Early detection and better record keeping by school administrators and health providers also have added to the growing numbers of children the CDC has identified with ASD, Farmer says.

The CDC reported the largest increases in prevalence were found among Hispanic and black children.

“Children in these groups have tended to be diagnosed later than those in other groups, and now better screening and diagnosis may be available to them,” Farmer says. “However, the increase in diagnoses among minority groups did not account for the total rise because all racial and ethnic groups showed an increase.”

The Missouri Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring (ADDM) site found one in 72 of all 8-year-old children in the St. Louis area have an ASD, which is notably higher than the national average.

“It is unclear why more children in the St. Louis region are diagnosed with ASD,” Farmer says. “Some speculate that families have better access to specialty care in that region than in other areas of the nation, which would facilitate diagnosis.”

The CDC’s report should serve as a reminder of the need for improved services and high quality research on ASD, such as research that investigates the causes of autism and identifies better interventions, Farmer says.

“Not all children with autism look alike or behave similarly,” Farmer says. “At the MU Thompson Center, we’re looking for ways to identify specific subgroups of children with autism so we can develop tailored ways to treat individuals in each group. Parents want to know what they can do today to improve the lives of their children now, and they want to know what will help their children have better lives down the road. Research will help us improve the lives of individuals and families affected by ASD.”

The Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders at the University of Missouri is a national leader in confronting the challenges of autism and other developmental conditions through its collaborative research, training and service programs. For additional information, visit