A new study by the Minnesota-Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network (MN-ADDM), led by researchers in the College of Education & Human Development (CEHD) at the University of Minnesota, identified 1 in 42 children (2.4 percent) as having autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in Minnesota. Focused on children who were 8 years old, the study relied on 2014 data from the health and special education records of 9,767 children in Hennepin and Ramsey counties.
MN-ADDM is part of a nationwide network of studies funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Nationwide, the CDC found that, on average, 1 in 59 (1.7 percent) of children have ASD—a lower prevalence rate than Minnesota.
What Initial Data Tells Us
We can’t tell you with 100 percent accuracy why the autism prevalence rates in Minnesota are different than what national data tells us. But what we do know is that there are two components that influence it:
- Geography. Our research area consisted of Hennepin and Ramsey counties. These are large, urban areas that make up a large part of the metro area. Historically, the ADDM data shows that geographic regions that are largely urban tend to have higher autism prevalence rates. This is because there’s a higher concentration of medical and intervention services for kids in need, and families tend to gravitate to those services.
- Health records. The CDC historical data and trends also show that in states where only health records are looked at when identifying children autism prevalence estimates are lower than in those states that use education records to identify children. MNADDM reviews both health and education records to identify children. Because we use both, Minnesota has higher prevalence rates of autism.
Supporting the Community
The most striking finding of this study is that 1 in 42 children in Minnesota has some form of autism; that’s a staggering prevalence rate. For every one of those children, there’s a family trying to get the best care to see them grow, develop. and lead a good life. With our prevalence rate, it means that every person living in Minnesota likely knows a child with autism or a family who has a child with autism. Our communities need to rally behind these families and advocate for adequate and inclusive services for all.
Numerous post-secondary education institutions like the University of Minnesota produce clinical staff (psychologists, developmental behavioral pediatricians, behaviorists, speech therapists, physical therapists, nurse practitioners, etc.) who have expertise in supporting children with autism through a person and family-centered care model. But we are not producing enough of them to meet staggering demand. This results in people on long waiting lists. We can do away with those waiting lists by training more people with autism expertise.
The Future of Autism Treatment & Research
This study has shown us treatment and research next steps, including:
- Earlier treatment. We learned in our research that the average age of a child diagnosed with autism in our geographic area is four years and nine months. National data tells us that a child can be diagnosed at the age of two – almost a two-year gap. That gap is a very critical time for these kids to receive intensive behavioral and communication early intervention services. If we can narrow the two-year gap, we know these kids will see better outcomes in education and better outcomes later in life as adults.
- Expanded research. It will be vital for us to expand our geographic area to improve future research, and we’ll need additional resources for that. Our current funding doesn’t allow us to expand beyond Hennepin and Ramsey counties. Our goal is to answer with certainty whether or not there is a disproportionate rate of Somali and Hmong children diagnosed with autism compared with Caucasian children. Right now, we don’t have a large of enough number of children to assess to determine that difference.
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