Written by Dr. Dave Hnida, CBS4 Medical EditorA rather disturbing report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention today about the wide range of disorders known as autism. The key point of the report: the numbers are in a steep, steep climb.

In 2000, the estimate was one in 150 American children had a form of autism. In 2006, that number jumped to one in 110. Today’s figure is based on an analysis of medical records and school reports on thousands of children in 14 states. It says autism affects one in 88. That’s quite a jump.

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So what’s going on? Many say it’s simply a matter of improved awareness and more aggressive diagnosis. The big fear, however, is something is going on in the environment that is responsible for the rise.

Although most researchers don’t think that’s the case, experts are now looking at what kids are exposed to in the womb, what their parents were exposed to (especially just before and during pregnancy), as well as what children are exposed to shortly after birth, including medication.

One of the most disturbing findings to come out of the report is that 40 percent of kids aren’t diagnosed until after age 4. That’s way too late, since we now know early treatment can help these children.

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That means you, and your doctor, need to be looking for clues at the earliest of ages that your child is developing at a steady pace and hitting the guidelines for growth and development within acceptable ranges.

In addition to routine screenings at regular well-child checks, your doctor should be performing specific screens for development at certain visits: 9 months; 18 months; and 24 months. Preemies, low birth weight kids, and those with a family history of autism may need more frequent screening.

Here’s a nice link for all of you parents out there: “Learn the signs, Act Early!”

LINK: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Autism ‘Act Early’ Website

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And as a physician, I leave you with one more piece of advice: you know your child best. Trust your instincts. Make sure your child is where he or she should be on the road to normal development. Early diagnosis and treatment can make a huge difference.