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U.S. Autism Rate Soars Twentyfold in 20 Years; Utah’s Rate Ranks 3rd Highest in 14-State Study

February 8, 2007 — One in every 133 Utah children has autism-the third highest rate among 14 states examined in a study published Feb. 9 by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The study, which examined the health and education records of 8-year-olds in Utah and 13 other states in 2002, concluded the prevalence of autism spectrum disorders-characterized by impaired social, communicative, and behavioral development-is 20 times higher in Utah than two decades ago and constitutes an “urgent public health concern.”

Utah researchers looked at education and health records of more than 26,000 children in Davis, Salt Lake, and Utah counties. Among the states studied, only New Jersey and Georgia had higher autism rates in males than Utah.

The startling increase shows autism is far more common than was thought. William M. McMahon, M.D., professor of psychiatry in the University of Utah School of Medicine and the study’s co-principal Utah investigator, attributes the rise to two primary reasons: better recognition of the disorder and broader medical criteria characterizing autism.

“Compared to our Utah autism study 20 years ago, this increase in prevalence reflects better diagnosis and referral of milder cases. This is progress,” McMahon said. “However, our understanding of autism can be compared to medical understanding of fever in the 18th Century. While we recognize the symptoms of autism we have yet to discover the cause and translate that knowledge into cure and prevention.”

A 1980s study by the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and the University of Utah estimated four in every 10,000 Utah children had autism. That equates to one child in every 2,500.

McMahon and co-principal investigator, Judith P. Zimmerman, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry at the U of U, in collaboration with the Utah Department of Health, led researchers, with public and private-agency support. Among the major Utah findings:

  • Utah boys are nearly seven times more likely than girls to have autism.

  • The disorder occurs far more often in Caucasian, non-Hispanic children than in African American, Hispanic, Asian, and other children.

  • Utah’s autism rate is 20 times higher than 20 years ago.

  • Utah has the nation’s highest rate of late-onset autism.

  • Autism is Utah’s fastest growing serious developmental disability.

Nationally, 67 children are diagnosed with autism every day and the disorder costs the nation $90 billion a year. That cost is expected to double in the next decade.

In Utah, where an estimated 6,339 children have autism spectrum disorders, the costs also are staggering, according to Zimmerman.

“Using results from recent economic studies, we can estimate the combined economic costs for these Utah children are well above $20 billion across their lifetimes,” Zimmerman said. “Add into the equation the significant emotional strain placed on families and you will begin to understand why autism is an urgent public health issue and is believed by many people to be an epidemic.”

The cause, or causes, of autism is not known, although researchers are looking for both genetic and environmental factors. Health insurers do not cover the disorder and that means autism probably is under-reported, which has slowed the search to find a cause, according to McMahon and Zimmerman.

Although more children will be diagnosed with autism this year than with AIDS, diabetes, and cancer combined, public research funding for the disorder totals less than 5 percent of that for leukemia, juvenile diabetes, and muscular dystrophy. This year, $15 million in public funds were allocated for autism research.

McMahon and Zimmerman are working with the Utah Department of Health to find money to continue their research and expand it statewide. The CDC grant that funded the current study ended six months ago, and state health department and U School of Medicine’s Department of Psychiatry have continued their partnership with temporary funding.