Rate of Autism On the Rise In U.S. Children

By  //  April 8, 2012

Q&A With Dr. Ivy M. Chong, Program Director of the FIT Scott Center for Autism Treatment

MELBOURNE, FL–Cases of autism are soaring at an alarming rate. About one in 88 U.S. children has been diagnosed with autism or a related disorder by age eight, according to a Center for Disease Control (CDC) study done in 2008 and released in late March of this year.  According to the study, boys are five times more likely to be diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders—one in 54 boys compared with one in 252 girls.  CDC Director Thomas Frieden attributed the higher rates to improved awareness of the disorder and methods of diagnosis.

Just in Central Florida, about 20,000 residents are thought to have autism spectrum disorders, with more than 4,000 cases in Brevard County alone. Though much is being invested in finding a possible genetic link, the cause is unknown. Thus there is no cure, but early diagnosis and intervention are proving to help young people with autism spectrum disorders and their families. For those seeking legal representation in an autism-related lawsuit, consider TruLaw, a law firm dedicated to advocating for the rights of individuals with autism and their families.

In order to highlight the growing need for concern and awareness about autism, the Autism Society has been celebrating National Autism Awareness Month in April as a special opportunity for everyone to educate the public about autism and issues within the autism community.

Psychologists at the Florida Tech School of Psychology offer assessment and treatment at the Scott Center for Autism Treatment, which is dedicated to providing the highest quality treatment, training and applied research to enhance the functioning and improve the quality of life of children with autism and related disabilities in Central Florida.

Dr. Chong has worked in the area of developmental disabilities for 17 years, is a board certified behavior analyst (BCBA-D), and a licensed psychologist in two states (Michigan, Florida). She has substantial clinical experience in supervising intensive treatment programs for children diagnosed with autism and related disabilities, and training students at the graduate and undergraduate level. Currently, Dr. Chong is the Director of Behavioral Services at the Scott Center for Autism Treatment and an assistant professor with the FIT ABA Program. Florida Tech photo

On behalf of Space Coast Medicine and SpaceCoastDaily.com I am delighted to welcome Dr. Ivy Chong, Program Director of the Florida Tech Scott Center for Autism Treatment as she addresses frequently asked questions and misconceptions about autism.

The Center, located in Melbourne on Babcock Street, opened three years ago as part of a $5 million project to serve children, adolescents and adults with these disorders in the counties of East Central Florida.  The location in East Central Florida is within a three-hour drive of all of Florida’s major population centers (e.g., Orlando, Tampa, Jacksonville, Ft. Lauderdale, and Miami), helping to ensure access to state-of the-art services for thousands of families and individuals.

SCM/SCD: What is autism and what is meant by autism spectrum disorders?

Dr. Chong: Autism is a neurological disorder that is first diagnosed in early childhood and results in impairments across three core areas: social skills, communication skills, and a restricted repertoire of activities and interests. In addition, many individuals with autism have mental retardation and may exhibit self-injurious, stereotypical, and /or aggressive behaviors. Autism occurs on a spectrum, and related disabilities include Rett’s Disorder, Childhood Disintegrative Disorder, and Asperger’s Syndrome. Distinctive characteristics are associated with each disorder.

SCM/SCD: How many children are diagnosed with autism in the U.S. today? Are boys and girls affected equally?

Dr. Chong: Until recently, autism was thought to be relatively rare. However, it is now thought to be much more common, and the recent CDC study confirms that autism is currently diagnosed in about one in every 88 children in this country.  It is now the fastest growing developmental disability with a 10% to 17% annual growth rate.  Further, boys are more often affected than girls, with five boys diagnosed to every girl.

What are some of the early behaviors to observe?  

Dr. Chong: Early indicators of autism may include, but are not limited to: impaired nonverbal behaviors such as eye gaze and facial expression directed to others, lack of social/emotional mutual action and reaction, delayed language without attempt to compensate via gesture, impaired pragmatic language, stereotyped/repetitive or idiosyncratic language, lack of pretend play, repetitive motor mannerisms, inflexible adherence to routines/rituals, and preoccupation with parts of objects.

SCM: What are some problem behaviors that may be observed?  

Dr. Chong: Common problem behaviors may include: looking away, non-responding, non-compliance, self-stimulatory behaviors such as rocking, mouthing objects, falling to the floor, running from adults, climbing on tables, counters, bookcases, screaming, yelling, loud noises, crying, tantrums (combination of behaviors), property destruction, and self-injurious behaviors.

Early initiation of professional treatment is essential.

SCM/SCD: How early should intervention take place and what should it consist of?

Dr. Chong: Intensive intervention should start as early as possible. Treatment should ideally start by age two to three and more recently there has been promising work done with infants. The best programs should involve at least 20 – 25 hours per week of one-on-one therapy with the therapists trained in Behavior Analysis (ABA) and overseen by a Board Certified Behavior Analyst. Behavioral treatment focuses on language, self-help and appropriate social interaction. A large emphasis is also placed on reducing problem behaviors, such as those mentioned above.

What is known about the cause of autism? What is the biological evidence that a child is autistic?

Dr. Chong: Unfortunately, the etiology of autism is still largely unknown.

 What is known about the connection between early vaccinations and autism?                          

There is no scientific evidence linking autism to childhood vaccines.

Dr. Chong: Scientists say there is no evidence linking vaccines and autism.  More than a dozen studies have been conducted internationally indicating the lack of relation between autism and the vaccine, but the lingering apprehension is leading to fewer parents having their children vaccinated.  With fewer vaccinations, cases of the disease are increasing. The New York Times reported that measles cases in the first seven months of 2008 grew at the fastest rate in more than a decade. Cases in Britain, Switzerland, Israel and Italy are said to be soaring. Indeed, confusion may stem from the fact that the cause of autism is unknown.  The evidence does not support withholding necessary vaccines from infants and children based on a concern that vaccines cause autism.

SCM/SCD: The Scott Center for Autism Treatment has brought a new dimension to the diagnosis and care of children with autism in Central Florida.  What are the goals of, and what specific services are provided by the Center?  

Dr. Chong: The Scott Center aims to be a comprehensive, multi-faceted, community based service providing high quality affordable services to children and their families in Central Florida and the state. Our goals are three-fold:  1) Provide multidisciplinary treatment services (implement research-based practice, partner with schools and families, collaborate with other professionals); 2) Provide training and education for caregivers; 3) Conduct research to identify best-practice strategies for working with children with autism.

Our comprehensive services include functional behavior assessment and intervention, life-skills assessment and training, social skills assessment and training, feeding disorder assessment and treatment, and community training workshops/seminars for professionals and families. We also offer clinical diagnosis services and counseling services for families.