UAMS, Pulaski County Part of National Study Showing 23-Percent Increase in Autism Rates

By David Robinson

The national study, which reviewed behavioral assessments of 8-year-old children in 14 regions across the United States, found that 1 in 88 children had an autism spectrum disorder in 2008. This was up from 1 in 110 in 2006, and 1 in 150 in 2002. This means that the estimated prevalence increased 78 percent from 2002 to 2008.

Autism spectrum disorders – which include related disorders like Asperger syndrome, a milder form of autism – are developmental disabilities that affect language, cognition, emotional development and the ability to relate and interact with others.

The CDC study identified 3,820 8-year-olds with autism spectrum disorders. Boys were much more likely to be identified (1 in 54) than girls (1 in 252).

“This latest data is earth shaking,” said UAMS’ Eldon Schulz, M.D., the principal investigator for the UAMS portion of the study, which involved an assessment of Pulaski County 8-year-olds. “Our methodology for identifying autism spectrum disorders has been consistent over the years, so the scientific community is searching for answers.”

In contrast to the increase nationally, the rate for Pulaski County was unchanged from 2006 when 52 8-year-olds, or 1 in 95, were identified with autism. But Schulz, a professor in the College of Medicine’s Department of Pediatrics and Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, cautioned that little should be read into the numbers because Pulaski County’s results are from such a statistically small pool of children.

After its 2008 assessment of Pulaski County, UAMS received CDC funding to expand its autism study statewide for 2010 and 2012. Schulz is still assessing data for 2010 and will soon begin the 2012 study. Each year’s study is part of the CDC’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring (ADDM) Network. The ADDM Network sites collect data using the same methods.

“The focus now needs to be on these latest national study findings,” said Schulz, medical director for Arkansas Children’s Hospital Rehabilitation Services and Rockefeller Chair for Children with Special Health Care Needs. “Autism has fairly quickly become a critical health issue in this country.”

“We understand that people may be concerned when they hear these study results and we have been working to understand what’s causing the increase,” the CDC said in its report. “To understand more, we need to keep accelerating our research. We are working, together with our partners, on the search for risk factors and causes and to address the growing needs of individuals, families, and communities affected by ASDs.”

The CDC report notes that families are hit hardest when communities and service systems are not prepared to meet the needs of people with autism spectrum disorders.

“Therapies are expensive and families spend time on long waiting lists,” the report states. “Many parents even report having to stop work to care for their child with an ASD.”

Annual medical expenditures per child with an ASD range from $2,100 to $11,200, the report states. Intensive behavioral interventions for a child with an ASD can cost from $40,000 to $60,000 per year and nonmedical costs of special education for a child with an ASD are about $13,000 per year.

“Eventually the cost to individual families extends into lost productivity and other financial problems for communities,” the report says.

Some of the resources that are needed include therapies, trained teachers, diagnosticians, health care providers, and related service professionals, according to the report. Understanding the characteristics and number of children who have ASDs is key to promoting awareness of the condition, helping educators and providers to plan and coordinate service delivery, and identifying important clues for further research.

There is no medical diagnostic test for autism, such as a blood test or a brain scan. Autism spectrum disorders are diagnosed by comprehensive psychological and behavioral evaluations.

Other states participating in the study included Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, Missouri, New Jersey, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Utah and Wisconsin. The results are based on reviews of 48,247 school and health records.

UAMS is the state’s only comprehensive academic health center, with colleges of Medicine, Nursing, Pharmacy, Health Related Professions and Public Health; a graduate school; a hospital; a statewide network of regional centers; and seven institutes: the Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute, the Jackson T. Stephens Spine & Neurosciences Institute, the Myeloma Institute for Research and Therapy, the Harvey & Bernice Jones Eye Institute, the Psychiatric Research Institute, the Donald W. Reynolds Institute on Aging and the Translational Research Institute. Named best Little Rock metropolitan area hospital by U.S. News & World Report, it is the only adult Level 1 trauma center in the state. UAMS has more than 2,800 students and 775 medical residents. It is the state’s largest public employer with more than 10,000 employees, including about 1,000 physicians and other professionals who provide care to patients at UAMS, Arkansas Children’s Hospital, the VA Medical Center and UAMS’ Area Health Education Centers throughout the state. Visit or