In the ongoing effort to understand the growing prevalence of autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) nationwide, the University of Utah has received a $2.4 million, four-year grant to estimate the number of Utah 8-year-olds with ASDs and other developmental disabilities.
The University is one of 11 national centers awarded a total of $5 million in grants by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as part of the Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network (ADDMN). The U of U, in partnership with the Utah Department of Health, also is one of three centers awarded extra funding to begin estimating the number of 4-year-olds with ASD and other developmental disabilities.
The grants will allow the centers to continue work begun last year to undertake long-term tracking of 8-year-olds with ASDs in each of the 11 states. Most ASDs are diagnosed by age 8, and by tracking kids that age in their individual states the centers will be able to construct a broader picture of ASDs across the country.
Recent studies have shown the rate of autism is increasing markedly nationwide, including in Utah.
A 2007 study involving 14 states revealed that one in 133 Utah children had an ASD - the third highest rate in the study and an astonishing twentyfold increase in a 20-year period. This jump is explained in part by better diagnoses of ASDs and broader clinical criteria for the disorders, physicians and researchers say. But to fully understand why these disorders are on the rise, national studies of the type supported by the CDC are critical, according to Judith P. Zimmerman, Ph.D., a co-principal investigator on the new grant and research assistant professor of psychiatry at the U of U School of Medicine.
"We know the incidence of ASDs is increasing," Zimmerman said. "But to really understand why the number of children with ASD is changing so dramatically, we need solid long-term data on how prevalent these disorders are."
ASDs are a group of developmental disabilities that can cause significant challenges in social interactions and communication. Children with ASDs handle information in their brain differently from other people, and might have unusual ways of learning, paying attention, and reacting to different sensations. ASDs are part of the broader category of pervasive developmental disorders that includes autistic disorder, Asperger's syndrome, and pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified.
Although the specific causes of autism and other ASDs aren't known, research in recent years, including at the University of Utah, has tied a number of genes to the disorders. Researchers also suspect environmental factors in ASDs as well.
In 2009, the U of U and the other ADDMN centers each received one-year grants to begin identifying 8-year-olds with ASDs who were born in 2000. The new four-year grant will allow Zimmerman and co-principal investigator William M. McMahon, M.D., U of U professor and chairman of psychiatry, to put together estimates of Utah 8-year-olds with ASDs born in 2002 and 2004.
The prevalence of autism is increasing fast enough to become an "urgent public health challenge," according to Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of Health and Human Services. "Over the last decade, we've learned that autism affects about one out of every 110 American children," Sebelius said. "The collaboration with these grantees is one part of an historic new investment in autism research by our agency and others to better understand and address the complex needs of people with autism and their families."
The other ADDMN sites receiving the CDC grants, which total $5 million a year, are in Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Maryland, Missouri, New Jersey, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Wisconsin. Along with the U of U, researcher centers in Missouri and South Carolina also received additional funds to monitor ASDs and other developmental disabilities in 4-year-olds.
Dr. Edwin Trevathin, director of CDC's National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities, said the 11 research centers are vital to the CDC's commitment to identifying children with autism across the country. "The information each site collects helps estimate the number of children affected by autism spectrum disorders, facilitates learning about the characteristics of children with autism spectrum disorders, and assists communities in planning for services," Trevathan said.