The trends may signal that, due to improvements, families from historically underserved populations in Utah can access diagnostic services more readily than in the past, says Amanda Bakian, associate professor of psychiatry at HMHI.
“We know that we are doing a better job of identifying ASD early,” explains Deborah Bilder, professor of psychiatry at HMHI. She co-led the Utah study with Bakian. “In addition, there have been improvements in access to services across Utah’s populations.”
The changing rates of autism are a telling phenomenon happening in many regions of the U.S. “For years, we wondered whether the higher prevalence we had seen in White children was due to a biological phenomenon,” Bakian says. The new report, along with other evidence, indicates that autism actually is common across all groups of children.
The report reveals additional details, including data suggesting that autism is underdiagnosed in young children in Utah.
Autism prevalence is similar in Utah and other communities across the U.S.
The CDC published two reports, one focusing on ASD prevalence in 8-year-olds in 2020. The data come from 11 sites across the country, including Utah. Additional key findings are:
- 1 in 36 or 2.8% of children across all 11 sites were identified with autism, which is similar to the rate in Utah.
- In Utah, and across all sites, boys were 3.2 to 3.8 times more likely to be identified with autism than girls.
Successes and challenges in diagnosing autism in early childhood
The second study reports data from 4-year-olds, which is used to assess efforts to diagnose autism early. Data from Utah suggests that services have improved for all young children, Bilder says.
- In Utah in 2020, the prevalence of Hispanic children identified with autism rose compared to previous years and now exceeds the rate in White children.
- 4-year-olds were more likely to have been identified with autism by 48 months of age than 8-year-olds when they were that age.
- Of the 11 sites, Utah had the lowest rate of autism in this age group.
- Of the 11 sites, Utah had among the highest number of children who were suspected to have autism but had not yet received a diagnosis.
- After the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, the rate of children identified with ASD slowed down.
Early diagnosis is key
Bakian and Bilder credit Utah legislators for enacting policies and legislation in recent years that have broadened the reach of diagnostic services to children who are the most vulnerable.
Early autism diagnosis and treatment optimize children’s ability to learn, engage with others and develop independence. Toward that end, the CDC has funded autism surveillance in Utah for another four years and is emphasizing its “Learn the Signs. Act Early” program. The program helps parents and caregivers monitor children’s development and share information with health care providers.
“We’ve definitely made progress,” Bilder says. “Yet, there is still room for improvement in diagnosing autism at the youngest possible age.”
Salt Lake County, Davis and Tooele counties were included in the Utah portion of the study. In addition to HMHI, the Utah Department of Health and Human Services, Utah State Board of Education and Intermountain Healthcare were collaborators in this public health activity.
Outside of Utah, other participating communities were in Arizona, Arkansas, California, Georgia, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, Tennessee and Wisconsin. Although the study spanned the country, the researchers stress that their findings are a snapshot of ASD in these communities and not a national estimate of autism prevalence in the United States.
About Huntsman Mental Health Institute
Huntsman Mental Health Institute (HMHI) was established in 2021 following the Huntsman Foundation’s historic gift of $150 million to the University of Utah. HMHI is a university-wide Institute with a reputation throughout the Mountain West as a leader in advanced psychiatric treatment and care, serving a diverse population from young children to geriatric patients. Researchers at HMHI develop and apply the most advanced methods in genetics, imaging, epidemiology and big data analysis. HMHI is also the regional training center for psychiatry and other mental health disciplines. HMHI’s main 170-bed full-service hospital is adjacent to the University of Utah campus, and HMHI’s 1,644 faculty, staff and students provide clinical, research and training programs in more than 20 locations across Utah and Idaho.