Pinning down exact autism rates in the U.S. has been no easy task. Debate has raged about the number of known cases of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) over the years.

In the 1970s and ’80s, it was reported that one out of every 2,000 children had autism. That number jumped to one in 80, according to survey results from 2011–2013 conducted by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention (CDC). (1)

As it turns out, even that number may even be low. This week, the CDC announced the results of its 2014 National Health Interview Survey, and the new research finds that as many as one in every 45 children in the U.S. displays signs of autism! (2)

What’s behind the spike in autism rates, and does this mean they will continue to rise? Let’s explore.

Autism Rates and Asperger’s Syndrome

Given these alarming results, one might wonder what’s behind all of this. It turns out that the questionnaire used in the survey may play a pivotal role.

For the first time, the CDC asked specifically about Asperger’s syndrome, something it hadn’t done previously because Asperger’s had its own diagnosis. However, in 2013, Asperger’s was eliminated as an official diagnosis and, instead, is now encapsulated under autism spectrum disorder.

Given the new classification, the more than 11,000 families that were asked to complete the survey were asked if health professionals ever told them their child had autism, Asperger’s, pervasive developmental disorder (PDD) and autism spectrum disorder.

The addition of Asperger’s undoubtedly played a role in the rise of autism rates reported in the survey, which explains part of this bump. However, researchers are not certain this is the sole reason for the increase. (3)

You may be wondering, seeing as autism spectrum disorder now includes Asperger’s, if there is a difference between autism and Asperger’s specifically. So let’s explore the similarities and differences between the conditions.

What Is Autism? 

Autism rates - Dr. Axe

Autism — and ASD — is actually an overarching term for complex brain development disorders. Previously, it had its own classification under the PDD label and now is commonly the term used to describe most, if not all, autism spectrum disorder conditions. Autism is typically characterized by social interaction difficulties, repetitive actions and behaviors, and both verbal and nonverbal communication issues.

When people refer to autism, they typical describe a developmental disorder that begins in early childhood and, as mentioned, affects language, behavior and social skills.

There’s no known exact cause, but it’s believed to be a combination of exposure to toxins, medications taken during pregnancy, infections, inflammation, leaky gut syndrome, inborn errors of the metabolism, food allergies, nutrient deficiencies and any other number of factors.

The most obvious signs and symptoms of autism usually emerge between the ages of 2 and 3, and they include:

  • Need for repeated rituals
  • Repetitive and compulsive behaviors
  • Repetition of certain motor activities
  • Tantrums

The repetition of motor activities is often the viewable symptoms of autism. Some of these include:

  • Head banging
  • Hand or limb flapping
  • Spinning
  • Body rocking
  • Flicking
  • Scratching
  • Tracing
  • Feeling textures
  • Tapping
  • Teeth grinding
  • Grunting
  • Yelling

These symptoms also often appear in children with Asperger’s syndrome, which may explain why the Asperger’s diagnosis was disbanded and is now instead included in the ASD umbrella.

Some of the best autism natural treatments include:

Autism and Asperger’s syndrome may also have co-occurring conditions such as Tourette syndrome.

What Is Asperger’s Syndrome?

Asperger’s disorder — named after Austrian doctor Hans Asperger, who first recognized the disorder in 1944 — is another PDD that delays development. It most often presents itself as a social disorder. (4)

As such, the symptoms of Asperger’s often involve inhibited social skills and include:

  • Awkward social skills — difficulty interacting with others and maintaining conversations
  • Repetitive and eccentric behaviors — hand-wringing or finger-twisting
  • Unordinary rituals or preoccupations — getting dressed in a specific order
  • Communication troubles — avoid eye contact, don’t display expressions, neglect body language
  • Limited range of interests — obsessive in nature
  • Coordination difficulties — clumsy and awkward movements
  • Highly skilled in one area — music or math, for example

There is no cure for Asperger’s, but there are steps you can take to treat the condition. Different forms of therapy in combination can help reduce problem behaviors and improve overall functioning. These include:

  • Special education — to meet an individual child’s needs
  • Behavior modification — supporting positive behavior and decreasing problem behaviors
  • Occupational, physical and speech therapy — to increase normal functioning
  • Social skill therapy — build social skills and ability to read verbal and nonverbal cues
  • Medications — symptoms can be treated, however there is no medication to specifically treat Asperger’s

Much like autism, there is no known exact cause to Asperger’s. However, it seems to be heredity to some degree and appears due to a variety of factors, most likely.

Autism vs. Asperger’s

While we’ve established that including Asperger’s in ASD has at least played a part in rising autism rates, what makes these previously separately diagnosed conditions different?

The biggest difference is the way in which these disorders are perceived. While they’re extremely similar in many ways, Asperger’s patients typically function at a higher level than children with autism. In fact, it may be difficult to detect Asperger’s because children who have it often have normal intelligence and near-normal language development.

That’s in contrast to classical autism, which seems to show lower IQ and more difficulty with verbal communications.

However, children with both conditions have trouble expressing their feelings, don’t hold eye contact, and have trouble picking up on body language and gestures of others. They both display obsessive behaviors as well and can be sensitive to outside sense like sounds, clothing and even food. In fact, it can be so difficult to differentiate Asperger’s and high-functioning autism that it can be nearly impossible at times. (5)

Takeaways on Spiking Autism Rates

The biggest takeaway from all this is that while autism rates have reportedly risen, it’s important to take into account the new classification of autism spectrum disorder. Instead of diagnosing — and increasing the risk of perhaps misdiagnosing — very specific disorders, ASD now includes most PDDs, including classic autism and Asperger’s syndrome.

Still, the increase shows just how important it is to detect these issues in your children. The sooner you can determine whether or not your child has autism, the sooner you can go about finding the best ways to enhance and encourage their mental development.

So don’t be overly alarmed just yet — but please make sure to limit your risks and your children’s risk by maintaining a healthy, healing diet and avoiding any and all toxins you can.

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