Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health reveal that autism is the fastest-growing developmental disability among children in the United States.

The CDC and NIH report that 1 in 166 births in America will be a child affected by autism. Alabama alone saw an 885 percent increase in autism numbers from 1992-1993 through 1999-2000, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

“During the 1990s it became clear that autism was much more prevalent than people thought,” says Russell Kirby, professor of public health in the department of maternal and child health and principal investigator for a study focusing on enhanced capacity for surveillance of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and other developmental disabilities in Alabama.

Kirby, operating under a four-year, $1.36 million grant from the CDC, is reviewing the records of children who will be 8 years old in 2006 and in 2008. He is studying a 32-county area covering the northern half of Alabama.

“What we’re trying to do is identify through medical records, clinic records and, to the extent we can, by accessing information from school records, all children who have some indication that they might be somewhere in the autism spectrum,” Kirby explains.

After reviewing and abstracting records that potentially could be children with ASD, the records are blinded and two trained clinician reviewers then look at a summary of each evaluation and make a determination. Abstractors and clinician reviewers evaluating the files receive extensive training and complete reliability reviews in order to remain in compliance with the project protocols, as defined by the CDC.

“Autism is not thought to be a single condition,” according to Kirby. “Rather, it presents across a spectrum of conditions, making diagnosis more complicated.”

Reasons for the increase in autism diagnoses in our area and around the country are unknown, Kirby says. Could it be that advancements in research and testing procedures have enabled doctors to better diagnose the ASDs?

“That is the $64 million question, and I don’t think we know the answer completely,” Kirby says. “But we have a body of research that suggests we are doing a better job of making the diagnosis.”

By the time Kirby’s research is complete, he hopes to compare the prevalence of autism by gender, ethnicity, socio-economic status and other demographic factors.

He also hopes to accomplish one other thing.

“I’m not one who likes to do a project just to determine the population prevalence of a condition,” Kirby says. “Our long-term goal is to develop strategies for primary prevention of developmental disabilities.”