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Surge Desk

Does Poverty Fend Off Autism?

Sep 22, 2010 – 11:22 AM
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(Sept. 22) -- That children born to well-off homes are more vulnerable to autism has been a topic of curiosity and research among experts for decades. But a new study of around half a million American children, published this week in PLoS One, adds some startling concrete numbers to that aspect of the ongoing investigation into autism's roots.

By comparing relevant census information (including education levels and income) to the CDC's database of kids identified as suffering from autism or related health and behavioral problems, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison concluded that wealthier families and more affluent neighborhoods bore a significantly larger autism burden.

The potential causal association between family income and children's autism, however, remains a mystery.

"We can demonstrate that there is this association. It's statistically significant, and it's there, but we really can't show why it's there," Maureen Durkin, the study's lead author, told the Chicago Tribune.

And there's no shortage of possible explanations. Wealthier parents might raise children in cleaner environs, making them more susceptible to illnesses that might trigger autism. Or, it might come down to DNA: affluent couples often delay child-bearing, perhaps leading to an increased risk of genetic mutation.

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To add to the puzzle, the study might also be yielding more robust information about health care disparities than it is about autism diagnoses. Children in wealthier families are more likely to receive a formal diagnosis of autism. Researchers included CDC records of kids with symptoms but no official diagnosis, but admit the federal database might still be incomplete.

If that's the case, it portends a troubling underestimation of just how many kids actually suffer from autism.

"This would imply that there are significant ... disparities in access to diagnostic and other services for children with autism in communities across the United States," the study reads. "It also would imply that the current estimate of [autism spectrum disorder] prevalence might be substantially undercounted."

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