Video: Rise in autism cases may mean more mainstreaming

  1. Closed captioning of: Rise in autism cases may mean more mainstreaming

    >>> new study published online suggests the prevalence of autism in kids may be higher than previously thought. findings that could have an impact on the way children are evaluated. here's nbc's chief medical editor dr. nancy snyderman .

    >> reporter: 7-year-old clark was diagnosed with asperger 's syndrome at 4 1/2.

    >> clark talked early and read at age 3. he was just quirky. it was covering the ears, sensory overload, the tantrums. he would hit himself in the forehead or crawl under chairs and hide. but how much of that is a child who's 3 and how much of that is a child with a potential developmental disability ? at his preschool a couple teachers said, we are seeing red flags. i decided to get him into a specialist. so he had some testing done, some behavioral testing and assessments done. it was an autism spectrum disorder . that was since refined to asperger 's.

    >> reporter: sds are a group of developmental disabilities ranging from mild to severe causing significant social, communication and behavioral challenges for the children who experience them and their families.

    >> the social interaction skills is at the crux of the diagnosis. it's the lack of social interaction . but they don't have the difficulties in language development and cognitive skills that the other two disorders have. they usually have normal intelligence and normal language development .

    >> reporter: now researchers say mild forms may affect more children than first believed. the incidence of autism could be as high as 1 in 38 children, based on a study of 55,000 children ages 7 to 12 from a seoul south korean community. the study, funded by the nonprofit group autism speaks , more than doubles recent estimates from the cdc citing 1 in 110 children in the u.s.

    >> it's hard not to focus on the number. i think it's more important to focus on the message. autism is more common than we think and a lot of kids out there are doing well in main stream schools but can do even better if they are provided assistance.

    >> reporter: clark has undergone therapy and his mom says he's shown progress.

    >> he's in a main stream 1st grade . he has an aide for part of the day and very talented teachers and support staff.

    >> it's important for people to recognize that early identification and early intervention make a big difference in the outcome that these children have later in life.

    >> reporter: while the cause and cure of autism remain unknown, michelle remains positive about her son's future.

    >> my hope is that he'll be -- i don't want to say normal but he'll be the best he can be. i want him to reach his potential. i just want him to be able to find a little sense of comfort in the world so not everything is so confusing to him or difficult for him.

    >> nancy, good morning. nice to see you.

    >> good morning, matt.

    >> let's talk about the south korean study. it was conducted in a specific part of south korea and was very inclusive. they tried to get every child living in that area. how do you feel about the research?

    >> i think the research is strong. american, canadian and south korean researchers looked at a controlled group. 55,000 kids in a place where there is universal health care and a strong educational system . they were really able to look at the children and --

    >> is it applicable to this country?

    >> every researcher says yes.

    >> you were not surprised to hear the findings. that surprised me because the numbers are startling i.

    >> we go from 1 in 110 to 1 in 38. we have taken the blinders off. instead of the severely autistic institutionalized kids to asperger 's we are saying, you know, perhaps there is more of the kids in this spectrum.

    >> you're saying this is including a group of children on one end of the spectrum they wouldn't have been diagnosed 15, 20 years ago.

    >> they weren't diagnosed. i would suspect they are underdiagnosed today. these are kids who go on to do very creative things. may have phenomenal social skills . maybe the kids you meet that have trouble looking at adults in the eye but go on to create phenomenal companies. we can think in our heads about a lot of people creating a lot of products in the silicon valley .

    >> they could have been in that group. 1 in 38 children in the study had some form of autism.

    >> right.

    >> of those 1 in 38, half of them began to show signs before the age of 3. that's important information for parents.

    >> for any mother with a boy, look for the soft signs, things like loud noises bothering your child , a child covering his or her ears, the inability to make eye contact . deficits in communication. it can vary from child to child and i think the repetitive behaviors. in my family, one of my children, if you stopped a song and went to dinner you had to start all over again when you came back. the idea to complete. look for hyper activity, obsessive compulsive disorder. here's what we know. the earlier you intercede, the better the outcome. i think right now we may be looking at trying to stick kids like square pegs into round holes and our educational system isn't broadening its parameters.

    >> it will continue the discussion on this and it should.

    >> absolutely.

By AP Medical Writer
updated 5/9/2011 2:37:54 AM ET 2011-05-09T06:37:54

A study in South Korea suggests about 1 in 38 children has traits of autism, higher than a previous U.S. estimate of 1 in 100.

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By casting a wider net and looking closely at mainstream children, the researchers expected to find a higher rate of autism characteristics. But they were surprised at how high the rate was. They don't think South Korea has more children with autism than the United States, but instead that autism often goes undiagnosed in many nations. U.S. estimates are based on education and medical records, not the more time-consuming survey conducted in South Korea.

Two-thirds of the children with autism traits in the study were in the mainstream school population, hadn't been diagnosed before and weren't getting any special services. Many of those undiagnosed children likely have mild social impairments, rather than more severe autism.

"It doesn't mean all of a sudden there are more new children with (autism spectrum disorders)," said co-author Dr. Young-Shin Kim of the Yale Child Study Center. "They have been there all along, but were not counted in previous prevalence studies."

TODAY Moms: Like a 'Supernanny for autism' -- one family's story

It's not clear whether the children need special services or not, other experts said.

"I'm sure some of these children probably could benefit from intervention, but I don't think we could make a statement that all would benefit from intervention," said Dr. Marshalyn Yeargin-Allsopp, chief of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's developmental disabilities branch.

Video: Finding autism early (on this page)

The CDC wasn't involved in the new study, although another federal agency, the National Institute of Mental Health, provided some funding.

The group, Autism Speaks, which advocates for more aggressive autism screening, also helped pay for the study. Autism Speaks had no role in the study's design.

Study aimed to screen 55,000 kids
The research, published Monday in the American Journal of Psychiatry, attempted to screen all 55,000 schoolchildren, ages 7 to 12, in a district of Goyang City, near Seoul.

However, only about two-thirds of mainstream children participated. About 63 percent of their parents filled out a survey. The researchers acknowledged that parents of affected children might be more likely to fill out the survey.

The questionnaire used is a recognized screening tool for high-functioning autism such as Asperger's syndrome. It asks such questions as whether the child "stands out as different" in a number of ways, including lacking empathy, lacking best friends and being bullied by other children.

From there, some of the children who screened positive were tested further. Very few of the children actually completed the entire diagnosis process. But the researchers say they still were able to use the findings to estimate that about 2.6 percent of the population had some autism traits — compared to the U.S. estimate of 1 percent.

The ambitious study took five years to complete. The U.S. government's approach is quicker and allows more ongoing results, Yeargin-Allsopp said.

"Community providers, researchers and others are interested in prevalence of autism on a frequent basis," Yeargin-Allsopp said. "This is not possible if you're doing a screening of an entire population" as was attempted by the South Korean researchers.

Other funders of the study were Children's Brain Research Foundation and the George Washington University Institute for Ethnographic Research.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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