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MUSC autism experts comment on rising numbers of children with the disorder

By Aimee Murray | News Center | March 28, 2014

AutismAutism rates now 1 in 68 children, according to the CDC.

The Medical University of South Carolina is hosting events to shed light on the growing issue of autism spectrum disorders, especially given recently published numbers showing a 30 percent increase in the number of children being identified.

MUSC will light up the North Tower in blue April 2, an event that kicks-off Autism Awareness Month. Walt Jenner, education and outreach coordinator at MUSC, said a town hall meeting will be held on April 1 from 6 to 8:30 p.m., at Sea Coast Church, West Ashley. Jane Charles, M.D., Laura Carpenter, Ph.D., and McLeod Gwynette, M.D., will present important information concerning the new numbers related to autism prevalence and what that means for children in the state and nation..

MUSC Light It Up Blue for autism 
MUSC will light up the North Tower in blue April 2, an event that kicks-off Autism Awareness Month. 

“The town hall meeting will be an opportunity for parents, children and the general community to come together and ask pediatric developmental specialists questions about autism spectrum disorders and what the prevalence numbers mean,” said Jenner.  

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, figures now show that one in 68 children is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), an increase from 2008 when one in 88 children were diagnosed. The estimated prevalence of ASD has increased about 29 percent since 2008, 64 percent since 2006 and 123 percent since 2002. The data continue to show that ASD is almost five times more common among boys than girls: One in 42 boys versus one in 189 girls.

Levels of intellectual ability vary greatly among children with autism, ranging from severe intellectual challenges to average or above average intellectual ability.  The study found that almost half of children identified with ASD have average or above average intellectual ability (an IQ above 85) compared to a third of children a decade ago.

Jenner noted this as an important finding of the study as well as well as the increase in numbers. He said the Autism and Development Disabilities Monitoring Network (ADDM) report gives the autism prevalence numbers, but it still doesn’t explain why the prevalence of ASD continues to rise.

“There has, however, been a remarkable increase in the number of research studies underway world-wide to help answer the questions of why the continual increase in prevalence and studies to provide best practice interventions. We do know that there is more than one type of autism, that it is a spectrum disorder and there are multiple causes,” he said.

Jenner said it has been found that 12 to 13 percent of autism prevalence among children is related to being born too early, too small and/or by Cesarean delivery.

“Also, children who have a sibling with autism are at a higher risk of having autism, children born to older parents are at a higher risk of having autism and when taken during pregnancy, certain prescription drugs, such as valproic acid, have been linked with a higher risk of autism,” he said.

Laura Carpenter, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Pediatrics and co-principal investigator of the South Carolina Children’s Educational Surveillance Study (SUCCESS), a first of its kind population-based screening and assessment study, said health professionals are getting better at identifying symptoms of ASD in children with average or above average cognitive skills.

She also stressed the need for increased awareness.

“We know it’s really important that kids get early intervention for autism and in order to get early intervention, you have to have early identification. To identify kids early, parents and doctors have to be aware of the signs of autism. We are very hopeful that children who can be identified and get help early will actually have a different developmental outcome so that they end up being indistinguishable from their peers.”


Carpenter explained the SUCCESS team screens children in Charleston, Berkeley and Dorchester Counties born in 2004 and brings about 10 percent of those children to the clinic to administer comprehensive evaluations to try to understand how many children actually have developmental issues.

“We are working with more than 130 schools in the tri-county area as well as more than 20 home and virtual schools. When the study is completed, it will be the most precise estimate of prevalence of autism ever done in the U.S., which is exciting because I feel like our community has a chance to make a real impact on the entire U.S.,” she said.

SUCCESS is just one part of the work MUSC is doing with autism. Jenner explained MUSC will continue to work with the ADDM network and observe changes in the characteristics and trends over time.

“We have other studies under way to help us look for answers, including a study of four-year-old children with autism and another study of the only two drugs currently approved by the FDA to treat autism,” he said.

In addition to SUCCESS and the other studies being conducted, MUSC is developing an ADHD and autism center. Designed to serve pediatric and adult patients, the center will allow various MUSC departments to come together to offer centralized, integrated approaches to treatment.

Michelle Macias, M.D., head of the steering committee for the center, said MUSC has provided these services for a long time across different departments for individuals with autism and other developmental disorders. “However we’ve been siloed in different departments. This is an effort to bring people from those different departments across campus into one center, where individuals with autism and related developmental disorders can receive care.”

Macias said the center will provide interdisciplinary care to treat a variety of developmental disorders.

“The center is for a broad range of people over their entire lifespan, not just children. We understand how important transitions are to an individual with a developmental disability so we’re also focusing on transitional care into adulthood.”    



Related Stories >>

MUSC lights it up blue to raise awareness for autism

10 Things to know about new autism data (CDC)

Number of children diagnosed with autism soars (The Boston Globe)


Resources >>

Light It Up Blue

Project Rex

S.C. Children's Educational Surveillance Study (SUCCESS)

Autism Speaks

MUSC Piece it Together Program video



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