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Autism is on the rise­­ both locally and nationally, experts say, but the causes remain unknown.

In an ongoing study spearheaded by Penn Nursing in 2002 and run under the Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities and the Pennsylvanian Autism and Developmental Surveillance Program, Penn researchers have discovered that Autism Spectrum Disorder has, in fact, increased from 2002 to 2006.

“Everyone is talking about autism increasing — an ‘epidemic’ of autism,” Jennifer Pinto-Martin, director of the Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities, said.

“We don’t know if the reason for the increase is because there is an increase in the risk of acquiring the disease or because we are doing a better job identifying it,” she added.

Researchers studied the prevalence of autism in children who were 8 years old in 2002 and 2006. The study focuses on medical records and educational records.

The Center for Disease Control initiated the study in 2000 as part of the Children’s Health Act of 2000, which mandated that autism be studied. Penn Nursing received funding for the research from the CDC in 2002.

The purpose of the study, according to Pinto-Martin, is to look at different age cohorts over time and determine the prevalence of autism using the same diagnostic criteria with each cohort.

So far, the data from the 2002 and 2006 studies have varied significantly, indicating a rise in autism.

“In 2007 ADDM estimated that the prevalence of [autism] in 8-year-old children … was about one-in-150. Currently, the data indicate[s] that approximately 1 in every 110 children … in the areas studied had [autism],” Anita Washington, the Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network Project coordinator, wrote in an e-mail.

The national averages match the local averages.

In the 2002 PADDSP study, which focused on Philadelphia, one-in-190 8-years-olds were classified as autistic.

The number has been rising, as the 2006 PADDSP data determined that one-in-120 8-years-olds living in Philadelphia have autism, Pinto-Martin said.

Penn Nursing is running a simultaneous study that focuses on the risks and causes of autism. This study is under the auspices of the Study of the Epidemiology of Early Development and is funded by the CDC.

Ellen Giarelli, director of the PADDSP, said this study researches the “host of factors that place a child at risk — prenatal conditions, environmental factors, genetic factors, exposures.”

The study will be completed in 2011, she added.

Penn Nursing is also launching an initiative with the Center for Autism and Philadelphia Healthcare Trust — a philanthropic group — to create educational programs for Penn Nursing students about autism.

“One of the problems with autism is that there aren’t enough people trained to make the diagnosis and to care for the child once they get the diagnosis,” Pinto-Martin said. “At the Nursing school, we think that nurses should have a role in that.”

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