Local autism center works amid nationwide rise in cases

According to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an estimated one in 88 children in the U.S. is currently living with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), marking a 23 percent increase since the last report was issued in 2009. The findings were released March 29, just days before Autism Awareness Month, a national observance since the 1970s, began in April. The CDC's findings reinforce the efforts of advocates for autism awareness who are working to increase the dialogue surrounding the condition and educate the public about autism and related issues. Those advocates include Melissa Hunter, a psychologist with Dickinson Mental Health Center's Possibilities Autism Center, who offered her clinical perspective on the increase in American children with autism. "There's not a clear answer. There's a lot of research being conducted right now, looking at genetic and environmental variables. Research looking at, is there a specific genetic marker? What they seem to be finding so far is that there is a genetic piece but it's not particularly clear what that is," Hunter said. "There's other research looking at, is there an environmental trigger, and again there is just no clear evidence about exactly what that is, but the theory is that there is some sort of genetic susceptibility and probably some sort of environmental interaction that nobody is really clear on what those pieces are just yet." ASD, once an obscure disorder, has become a globally and clinically recognized developmental disability. As Hunter explained, some believe the rise is attributable not necessarily to a greater presence or more instances of the condition, but rather an increase in which the characteristics are recognized by doctors and diagnosed. "There are also some people who believe that part of the increase in prevalence is related to our ability to identify autism more accurately and differentiate from other diagnoses a little bit better. I don't think that accounts for the significant rise that we've seen, but probably does account for some of the rise in cases of autism," Hunter said.