Last week the child-development community got a jolt from news of a jump in numbers of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder: an increase of 30 percent in just two years. One in 68 children had ASD in 2010, up from one in 88 children in 2008, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
And that’s raised many questions among speech-language pathologists and other developmental experts. For one thing, what’s driving the increase? And what does it mean for ASD diagnosis and treatment? There are no clear answers or absolutes. But developmental expert Stephen Camarata is willing to speculate. We talked with the Vanderbilt University hearing and speech sciences professor about his take.
What is behind this increase? Is it really just an increase in identification?
There are three main factors. One is a real increase in incidence. Our technological ability to take preemies weighing less than a pound and have them survive has changed, and it’s not surprising that more of these kids might have challenges.
Second, there’s increased awareness, so more people are looking for ASD in kids. And third there’s the expansion of the definition of spectrum. The numbers of kids identified as high functioning and as having Asperger syndrome has skyrocketed.
What do the higher numbers mean for SLPs?
We’re the speaking profession, so we have a central role in assessing and treating these kids. Based on this, we’re obviously seeing a big increase in caseload, which as a field we need to develop ways to handle. But more basically than that, we need to figure out how to differentially diagnose these young kids, these 2-year-olds, distinguishing between ASD and the new DSM-5 [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders] category of social communication disorder.
We are the main profession driving identification and treatment of SCD, and we need to develop assessments and interventions in this area. It’s a huge opportunity and a huge challenge—and we need to be prepared to handle this demand.
The study suggests that there is a lag in identification, with most kids diagnosed at 4 and older when they could be diagnosed as early as age 2. What can SLPs do to help get these kids diagnosed earlier?
First I should point out that when the kids in this study were toddlers, in 2004 and 2005, we weren’t yet able to accurately diagnose autism at those young ages. Now, with the toddler module of the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule, we can. And given that with ASD comes late onset of speaking, SLPs are often doing the earliest assessments. Right now, we may be less inclined to put a late-speaker in the SCD category because we want to get these kids services but don’t yet have appropriate assessments, treatments or reimbursement for SCD. Our charge is to develop these. And it’s also to it’s also to continue to develop continuing education for our practitioners to diagnose autism, which we can do, typically as part of a team.
The study suggests that kids who are African American and Hispanic are being underdiagnosed relative to white kids—again, what can SLPs be doing to help close this gap?
It should be noted that, if you look at the report, there actually has been a dramatic increase in diagnosis in both those communities. But yes, the rates still lag behind those in white children a great deal, so there’s a need to close this gap. Part of this is an issue of cultural difference, but it’s also the well-known health-disparities story of lack of access to services. So we need to do more outreach and education in the African American and Hispanic communities about early intervention and their entitlement to public services.
What are the implications of these findings for the services SLPs provide to children on the spectrum?
This is my sense: Some SLPs feel like they’re not necessarily the primary interventionists in cases of autism but if a kid’s primary weakness is in the speech and language domain—which is the case in ASD, along with behavior—then they really have the role. Improved speech improves behavior. And parents want their kids to talk, so we are and should be primary clinicians involved in diagnosing and treating ASD.
As we go forward, we need to work on distinguishing SCD from autism. We need to own this, but to do that we need to provide data that make a difference and train others on what we know.
Learn more about social communication disorders and autism spectrum disorder on ASHA’s website. More information on both categories is available from ASHA—e-mail Diane Paul, ASHA director of clinical issues in speech-language pathology, at email@example.com.
Stephen Camarata, PhD, CCC-SLP, is a professor of hearing and speech sciences at the Bill Wilkerson Center at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. He is an affiliate of Special Interest Group 1, Language Learning and Education. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.