CDC study on autism shows progress toward earlier and broader detection in Utah children


Boram Kim


A recent 11-state CDC study estimates that autism spectrum disorder affects one in 40 eight-year-old children in Utah, lower than the study’s overall average across all surveyed states (one in 36). 


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Utah had among the highest number of children who were suspected of having autism but had not yet been diagnosed, but the lowest rate of autism in this specific age group. 

The data revealed that among the eight-year-old group examined, statewide ASD rates among white children were equal to rates from underserved populations, including Hispanic and Pacific Islander children. The analysis also reported a higher incidence of ASD among Utah children from lower-income households than those from higher incomes.

Researchers from the Huntsman Mental Health Institute (HMHI), who collaborated in the CDC program, said while the latest data showed improvement in the state’s diagnostic approach, additional work to reach more children was needed. 

“We know that we are doing a better job of identifying ASD early,” said Deborah Bilder, MD, professor of psychiatry at HMHI, who co-led the study in Utah. “In addition, there have been improvements in access to services across Utah’s populations … For years, we wondered whether the higher prevalence we had seen in white children was due to a biological phenomenon.” 

Bilder said the data suggests autism is common across all groups of children rather than associated with a particular racial group. 

Of the 6,245 children across the 11 states in the study who met the ASD classification, 74.7% had a documented diagnostic statement of ASD, 65.2% had a documented ASD special education classification, 71.6% had an international designation of ASD, and 37.4% had all three types of ASD indicators. 

The CDC has extended funding for autism surveillance in Utah for another four years. Those efforts include the “Learn the Signs. Act Early” program, which helps parents and caregivers monitor child development and share the information with healthcare providers.

HMHI credits the Utah Legislature for enacting policies that have broadened the reach of diagnostic services to children at high risk in recent years. Early autism diagnosis and treatment can optimize the ability of children to learn, engage with others, and develop independence, according to researchers.