Rising Rates of Autism Underscore the Need for Early Intervention and Treatment

Categories: ASD and DD, Child-focused

[This column was published in the West Springfield Republican on February 24, 2022, and in the Stoughton Journal, Randolph Herald, Holbrook Sun, and Canton Journal on February 28, 2022.]

A new estimate released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that one in 44 U.S. children is now diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). This is an increase to estimates reported two years ago of one in 54.

Given the current prevalence, pediatricians and other pediatric health service providers can expect to serve an increasing number of children with ASD. They should, therefore, be well-versed in identifying autism symptoms in early childhood and supporting families in accessing diagnostic and treatment services. 

Research shows that early diagnosis and intervention during the first years of a child’s life can significantly impact his or her long-term prognosis, particularly in the areas of language and social behavior. We also know that intensive behavioral interventions based on the principles of applied behavior analysis (ABA) have the most support in treating the core features of ASD. 

A child typically receives a diagnosis before treatment begins. Gold-standard ASD diagnostic practices rely on comprehensive evaluations that include standardized assessments of a child’s cognitive and developmental functioning and symptoms. This helps to differentiate ASD from other developmental difficulties. 

Although these evaluations are considered best practice in the field, it is important to note that long wait times for diagnostic services often result in missed opportunities for early intervention, especially during a highly sensitive period of development. Therefore, some advocate for a more flexible approach to assessment, specifically for children who show clear signs and symptoms during a general developmental assessment, such as one conducted by a pediatrician. This would allow the child to access intervention services more quickly, if needed. It is imperative and that parents, pediatricians and those working with young children be able to recognize the early signs of ASD, such as delays in communicating wants and needs, lack of appropriate social interactions, or repetitive behaviors.

Racially and culturally diverse populations may experience even longer wait times for diagnosis and referral due to limited options through health insurance or other systemic healthcare obstacles.

According to the CDC, “Research into the factors associated with the variability in ASD prevalence across communities and the higher proportion of intellectual disability among Black children with ASD is warranted. Progress is still needed in certain important areas, including the lower identification of ASD among Hispanic children versus other demographic groups.”

The call to action is clear. We must increase our efforts to educate families and practitioners about autism’s early warning signs and diagnose children at a younger age. We must also make information about the most effective evidence-based treatment for autism universally available, and create easier, faster, and more affordable access to that treatment for every child and family that needs it.

Here in Western Massachusetts, May Institute is committed to early identification and treatment of children with ASD and developmental disabilities. When a diagnosis and medical need for intensive ABA services have been confirmed, the child can access these services funded through the Department of Public Health or insurance. ABA services focus on improving communication, social, play, and daily living skills, with the goal of helping children build critical skills and reduce challenging behavior. 

By Sarah Connolly, Ph.D., BCBA-D

About May Institute
May Institute is a nonprofit organization that is a national leader in the field of applied behavior analysis and evidence-based interventions, serving autistic individuals and individuals with other developmental disabilities, brain injury, neurobehavioral disorders, and other special needs. Founded nearly 70 years ago, we provide a wide range of exceptional educational and rehabilitative services across the lifespan. For more information, call 800.778.7601 or visit

May Institute has recently expanded its intensive ABA services in Western Massachusetts to include both home- and center-based options for treatment for young children diagnosed with ASD. For additional information click here