Higher Autism Prevalence and COVID-19 Disruptions

A photo of a young child sitting on the ground smiling with chalk in their hand as friends in the background play with chalk on pavement.
1 in 36
8-year-old children living in ADDM Network sites* were identified with ASD in 2020

*11 U.S. Communities

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) continues to affect many children and families. The COVID-19 pandemic brought disruptions to early ASD identification among young children. These disruptions may have long-lasting effects as a result of delays in identification and initiation of services. Findings from CDC’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring (ADDM) Network show a need for timely and equitable access to early identification and support services.

The Children’s Health Act of 2000 authorized CDC to create the ADDM Network to track the number and characteristics of children with ASD and other developmental disabilities in diverse communities throughout the United States. The ADDM Network has been collecting and reporting ASD data from across the United States for more than 20 years.

Data collected by the ADDM Network in 2020 show that ASD continues to increase over previous years’ numbers. About 1 in 36 8-year-old children living in ADDM Network sites were identified with ASD in 2020, based on tracking in 11 communities across the United States. This number is higher than the ADDM Network’s 2018 estimates, which found that 1 in 44 8-year-old children were identified with ASD.

Early ASD identification was disrupted following the start of the COVID-19 pandemic

In 2020, children born in 2016 were 1.6 times as likely as children born in 2012 to be identified as having ASD by 48 months of age. This is important because the earlier a child is identified with ASD, the earlier they can access services and supports.

From 2016 to the beginning of 2020, 4-year-old children had more evaluations and identifications than children aged 8-years (when they were 4) had from 2012 through 2016.

Bar graphs show more evaluations for children born in 2016 during the 6-month period prior to March 2020 compared to followed by a dramatic decrease in evaluations over the following 6-months (March through August) compared to children born in 2012 during a similar time period.

Displayed as 6 months prior and 6 months post-pandemic

An analysis comparing the number of evaluations and ASD identifications before and after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic found that before the pandemic, 4-year-old children were receiving more evaluations and identifications than 8-year-old children did when they were 4 years of age. However, these improvements in evaluation and ASD detection were wiped out beginning in March 2020. Delays in evaluation could have long-lasting effects as a result of delays in identification and initiation of services during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Learn More

Spotlight On Progress in Early Identification Disrupted during the COVID-19 Pandemic among 4-year-old Children

ASD was identified at higher rates in some groups of children than in previous years

For the first time, ADDM data found that the percentage of 8-year-old Black (2.9%), Hispanic (3.2%), and Asian or Pacific Islander (3.3%) children with ASD was higher compared with 8-year-old White children (2.4%). This is the opposite of racial and ethnic differences observed in previous ADDM reports.

Also, for the first time, the percentage of 8-year-old girls identified with ASD was higher than 1%, but boys were nearly 4 times as likely as girls to be identified with ASD.

Learn More

Spotlight On A New Pattern in Racial and Ethnic Differences Emerges in Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) Identification among 8-year-old Children

Intellectual disability can occur with ASD

Intellectual disability (ID) can affect a person’s ability to learn at an expected level and function in daily life. Among 8-year-old children with ASD, more than one third (37.9%) also had ID based on findings from the ADDM Network.

Although progress has been made in the identification of ASD among children of all races and ethnicities, concerns remain around the percentage of Black children identified with ASD who also had ID (50.8% among 8-year-olds). This percentage is higher than for Hispanic (34.9%) or White (31.8%) children and remains consistent with previous reports from the ADDM Network.

To learn more about these findings and more, check out the latest ADDM data from the 2023 Community Report on Autism and other scientific reports.

Data for Action: How Can the ADDM Network Findings Be Used?

Service providers, such as healthcare organizations and school systems, researchers, and policymakers, can use ADDM Network findings to

  • Support service planning
  • Inform policies that promote improved outcomes in health care and education
  • Guide research on risk and protective factors for ASD
  • Promote interventions that can help children with ASD succeed

Early identification remains a major focus of CDC’s ADDM Network, as it is one of the most important tools communities have in helping to make a difference in the lives of children with ASD. CDC will continue tracking the number and characteristics of children with ASD and working to understand factors associated with outcomes among children and adolescents with ASD as they age and transition to adulthood.

ADDM Network findings on age of diagnosis of ASD support CDC’s Learn the Signs. Act Early. program, which aims to improve early identification by promoting early childhood developmental monitoring by parents, childcare providers, and healthcare providers.

Resources for parents if they suspect their child might have ASD

Parents know their children best. If a parent has concerns about their child’s development, it is best to act early to help the child and family get the services and supports they might need.

Mother with her child at his doctor's office

Parents can Act Early by

  1. Sharing concerns with their children’s healthcare provider
  2. Asking for developmental screening
  3. Getting connected to early intervention services

Early intervention (before school age) can have a significant impact on a child’s ability to learn new skills and may also reduce the need for costly interventions over time.

CDC’s FREE Milestone Tracker app makes it easy for parents to track, support, and discuss their child’s development with their child’s healthcare provider and other care and education providers. The app is available in both English and Spanish. Download it for free in the App Store and on Google Play.

Parent lovingly holding toddler on lap with text overlay that reads, “Help your child grow and thrive with CDC’s free Milestone Tracker app." Sub overlay text reads, "cdc dot gov slash MilestoneTracker”

Important steps to take if there is a concern

  • Talk with the child’s doctor and ask for developmental screening.
  • Contact a local early intervention program for a free or low-cost evaluation (children under age 3) or school system for a free evaluation (children 3 years or older).

For more tips on what parents and others can do when there is a concern, visit www.cdc.gov/concerned. Parents should remember that it’s never too late to get help for their child. An ASD diagnosis from a doctor is not necessary for a child to begin receiving some types of services.

More Information
  • New CDC Data on Autism.
  • Access FREE resources for parents, health professionals, childcare providers, and educators who work with children.
  • Learn more about CDC’s ongoing Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring (ADDM) Network.
2023 Community Report on Autism. The latest ADDM Network Data