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MUSC sheds light on autism

The Catalyst
Staff Writer

The North Tower at MUSC glowed blue April 2 as the campus joined Autism Speaks' worldwide initiative to "Light It Up Blue" to raise awareness about autism.

MUSC's North Tower lights up blue April 2 for autism awareness.

The symbolic act, done in sync with iconic landmarks around the world such as the Empire State Building, came just as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a new study that estimates that 1 in 88 children in the United States has been identified as having an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Autism spectrum disorders are almost five times more common among boys than girls – with 1 in 54 boys identified.

The data comes from 14 communities across the United States and includes monitoring work being done in South Carolina by MUSC. Jane Charles, M.D., Department of Pediatrics, and Joyce Nicholas, Ph.D., Biostatistics and Epidemiology, oversee MUSC's Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network (ADDM) study.

Walter Jenner, information officer for the SC ADDM project said, the numbers have almost doubled since we started monitoring ASD in 2000 which has surprised him. He expected it to level off. "It's five times as common in boys. That's kind of scary. It's certainly on people's minds now."

Study results from the 2008 surveillance year show 11.3 per 1,000 8-year-old children have been identified as having an ASD. This marks a 23 percent increase since the last report in 2009. Some of this increase is due to the way children are identified, diagnosed and served in their communities, although exactly how much is due to these factors is unknown

Coleen Boyle, Ph.D., director of CDC's National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities, said to understand more, health professionals need to keep accelerating research into risk factors and causes of autism spectrum disorders.

The study also shows more children are being diagnosed by age 3, an increase from 12 percent for children born in 1994 to 18 percent for children born in 2000. "Unfortunately, 40 percent of the children in this study aren't getting a diagnosis until after age 4. We are working hard to change that," said Boyle.

MUSC autism experts hope to change that as well.

Jenner, an advocate for early assessment of children, is the ADDM ambassador of the Learn the Signs Act Early program, which educates people on the importance of early diagnosis and prevention. "Because autism is assessed based on developmental behaviors, it can be diagnosed in children as young as 18 months old. If children are diagnosed at a young age, they can be treated to help improve symptoms earlier," he said.

Although there is no medical detection or cure, there are several research initiatives that are being conducted to find what exactly causes autism. Understanding the characteristics and number of children on the autism spectrum is essential to promoting the awareness of the condition, helping educators to plan special services, and identifying important signs for further research.

Members of the ADDM team show their "blue" spirit for Autism Speaks' Light It Up Blue autism awareness day.

Jenner said that prevalence studies such as these point out the need for more research, especially given that almost every scientist now agrees that there are environmental triggers involved as well as genetic factors in causing ASD. In the meantime, the study can be used to inform service providers how much to gear up much needed community support for the people affected by ASD.

"More attention will bring more resources to discover what's really going on. Down the road maybe it will mean finding a cure. That's what we all hope for."

  • The most important thing for parents to do is to act quickly whenever there is a concern about a child's development. CDC offers these tips:
  • Talk to your child's doctor about your concerns.
  • Call your local early intervention program or school system for an assessment.
  • Remember you do not need a diagnosis to access services for your child.

For more information about this study, visit http://www.cdc.gov/autism

For information on CDC's tools to help families track their child's development, visit http://www.cdc.gov/actearly.

To learn more about MUSC autism work: visit MUSC's Project Rex at http://www.projectrex.org and MUSC's Developmental - Behavioral Pediatrics athttp://clinicaldepartments.musc.edu/pediatrics/divisions/developmentalpeds/index.htm.

To access the full story, click here.

Date: 4/13/2012