A new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one in 59 children in America has autism, up 15 percent from 2016 when one in every 68 children reported having the disorder. Scientists are unsure what led to the increase.
This new estimate in autism diagnoses might seem small, but when compared to data from 2000, it represents a 150 percent increase . According to CNN, the CDC studied eight-year-olds diagnosed with autism in “11 communities across the nation” in 2014.
The increase also doesn’t necessarily mean that more children have autism, simply that more cases are being reported. And that could actually be a good thing, as it would signal an increase in a general awareness of autism. Many, in fact, have argued that this number is merely reflective of society and parents finally getting over many of the stigmas associated with autism.
“Autism is not a bad thing, and autistic people ⏤ of all ages, races, and genders ⏤ have always been here,” Zoe Gross, director of operations for The Autistic Self Advocacy Network, told USA Today. “What the CDC’s research shows is that our data is catching up to that fact.”
Still, many experts assumed that with increased awareness, the number of autism diagnoses would plateau or possibly even decrease. Instead, the number continues to rise. And since there are no proven environmental or societal factors linked to autism, scientists are still trying to make sense of the data.
Thomas Frazier, chief science officer for Autism Speaks, says that answers are unlikely to come without more research. “Without that,” he said, “We aren’t going to understand why autism has increased so dramatically over the decades.”