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Puerto Vallarta News NetworkHealth & Beauty | December 2009 

U.S. Autism Cases Show 59% Increase, Alarming Activists
email this pageprint this pageemail usStacey Singer - Palm Beach Post
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December 20, 2009

One in every 100 children in the United States may have some form of autism spectrum disorder, far more than previously believed, and the rate appears to be worsening quickly, especially among boys, new figures from the CDC show.

Researchers with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention looked at the 2006 medical and school records of 308,000 children in 11 communities, including Miami. They found rates of autism much higher than a similar study done in 2002, said Catherine Rice, of the CDC's National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities.

The 2000 data had suggested one in 150 children were affected.

It was a stunning run-up of 59 percent in four years, and the increase could not be explained just by better awareness or an expanded diagnosis, researchers found. The findings were published Friday in the CDC journal Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

The findings should be treated as a national emergency, autism activists said.

"We are at a crossroads here," said Palm Beach resident Bob Wright, founder of the nonprofit foundation Autism Speaks. "We need an integrated governmental approach to deal with the environment and genetics and treatment and diagnosis and ongoing life needs of these children."

The former vice chairman of General Electric and longtime CEO of TV network NBC and NBC Universal, Wright and his wife, Suzanne, started the nonprofit after their grandson Christian regressed into profound autism.

"Our grandson spoke beautifully at age 2, and then over 120 days he lost it all," Suzanne Wright said. "My little guy was speaking up a storm, and then little by little he lost everything."

Autism spectrum disorders are really a group of developmental problems that affect the brain. They leave children unable to learn, think, communicate and interact like their peers. While some function relatively well, like those with Asperger's syndrome, others, like the Wrights' grandson, sink into profound disability, unable to speak, and trapped in repetitive movements.

The Wrights have spent long hours wondering what could have sent their grandson into the darkness. Was it a vaccine? His strep throat infection? Something he was eating or breathing?

The study released Friday addressed only the prevalence of autism, not its possible causes, Rice said. But a major research effort is under way to find the causes, and better treatments. The National Institutes of Health put $60 million in economic stimulus money toward the effort in April.

At The Scripps Research Institute in Jupiter, neuroscientist Dr. Claes Wahlestedt is studying the genetics of Fragile X syndrome, which is often accompanied by autism.

"The dilemma with autism is that they are probably a bunch of different disorders. As we understand more, we will be able to subdivide the disease, and that will lead to better treatments down the line," Wahlestedt said. "What it is in the environment that is changing so dramatically I cannot understand. But the genetics are arguably little changed."

Autism is seen more often in the offspring of older parents, whose sperm and eggs accrue more genetic damage. It also tends to run in twins, giving weight to the argument that genetics are the main culprit. But evidence also argues for an environmental trigger.

Research has ruled out vaccinations, said Dr. Jeff Brosco, a professor of clinical pediatrics at the University of Miami . Further research is focusing on pollution, diet, food additives, vitamin D deficiency, nutritional supplements, household chemicals, cosmetics and more.

"We really still don't understand why some children get autism and some don't," Brosco said. "There are something like 80,000 chemicals in our environment and we have good information on 400 or 500."

The study found a large variation in rates of the disorder. The highest rates were in Arizona and Missouri, where 12 children per 1,000 were diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. The lowest were in Miami-Dade County, where 4.2 children per 1,000 were diagnosed.

Rice said that researchers had to go by medical records alone in Florida and some other communities. "We think the sites on the lower end are an underestimate," Rice said.

In Palm Beach County, 1,405 people are known to have an autism diagnosis, and all but 200 of those are under age 21, said Pam Minelli, the parent of a 12-year-old autistic son. She's involved with the Autism Project of Palm Beach County, which is raising money for a charter school campus for autistic children.

Minelli and her husband helped build up two charter schools for autistic children, the Renaissance Learning Center, which educates 64 children ages 3 to 14, and a new high school, the Renaissance Learning Academy, which serves 22 kids ages 14 to 21. Both are on Corporate Drive in West Palm Beach.

"We have 47 kids on the waiting list," Minelli said. She's now hoping to raise enough money to build an expanded campus able to support 300 autistic kids.

"With the CDC numbers, I am afraid we are going to have no problem filling those slots," Minelli said.

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