The University of Minnesota has been tapped to participate in a federally funded project to determine the prevalence of autism among the nation’s 8-year-olds.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) announced Wednesday that the U would get $450,000 a year for the four-year project, which would focus on autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and intellectual disabilities among 8-year-olds in Hennepin and Ramsey counties.
Dr. Amy Hewitt, a researcher and project director at the U’s Institute on Community Integration, said she’s excited about the opportunity to study how widespread autism is both nationally and in Minnesota.
“As the national numbers help federal agencies to better plan for and prepare for services, having Minnesota-specific data is going to really help our policymakers as well,” she said.
The CDC now has 10 sites nationwide participating in its Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring network, which began in 2002. The CDC said it will spend more than $20 million over the next four years to enhance tracking at eight existing sites and to launch two new sites at the U and Vanderbilt University. All sites will track ASD among 8-year-olds, and six sites will also track ASD among 4-year-olds.
The U applied for money to monitor both age groups but the award covered only 8-year-olds, Hewitt said. “We do really hope to look at 4-year-olds in the future,” she added.
The U’s application builds on a study it published in 2013 that found especially high autism rates among Somali and Caucasian students in Minneapolis. Although that study wasn’t part of the CDC’s tracking program, it used a similar methodology.
Nationally, the CDC says that one in 68 children meets the criteria for an autism diagnosis.
The U’s previous study found that one in 32 Somali schoolchildren in Minneapolis met the ASD diagnostic criteria, as did one in 36 white children. The rate for non-Somali black children was notably lower, at one in 62, as was the rate for Hispanic children, at one in 80. Some groups were so low that they weren’t cited in the report due to concerns about underestimates, Hewitt said.
One shocking finding of the U’s initial study was that all of the Somali children with ASD also had intellectual disabilities. Both nationally and in the state, only about 30 percent of all people diagnosed with ASD also have intellectual disabilities, Hewitt said.
For that reason, the U’s new study will look at both autism and intellectual disabilities among roughly 9,800 8-year-olds in Hennepin and Ramsey counties. It will employ up to eight part-time workers.
“It’s an important time to be doing this work,” Hewitt said.
Going forward, children will be evaluated under new diagnostic criteria found in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, known as DSM-5. Autism Speaks, a nonprofit advocacy organization, cites studies showing that a significant number of people who meet the old diagnostic criteria for ASD would now fit under the label “social communication disorder,” a new designation that lacks formal treatment guidelines.
Autism Speaks says it has received reports of children losing behavioral therapy and special education services after their autism diagnosis was changed to SCD, though the committee that drafted the new diagnostic criteria for autism stated that no one should be required to be re-evaluated under the new criteria.
“Certainly, any time there’s a change in diagnostic criteria advocates are going to be concerned,” Hewitt said. “You don’t know the outcome of that change, and so this will be the first cycle that gives us an indication about those differences.”