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Higher autism rates were found in some places than others. For example in Utah, as many as 1 in 47 of the 8-year-olds had an autism spectrum disorder. In New Jersey, 1 in 49 did.
Alabama was at the other end of the scale, with only about 1 in 210 identified as autistic. The difference was attributed to less information: Researchers were not able to access school information in that state and a few others, and as a result believe they have a less complete picture.
That's a reasonable explanation, said Zachary Warren, director of an autism treatment and research institute at Vanderbilt University.
"How you go looking for something is going to affect what you find," he said.
In the early 1990s, only a few out of every 10,000 children were diagnosed with the condition, based on some small studies in individual states or cities. But the numbers began to change dramatically after 2000, when Congress directed federal health officials to do more autism research, and CDC started the larger study to see how common autism is.
CDC is also studying the cause of autism, which has remained a mystery.
Scientists say genetics play a role.
Some parents and others have believed childhood vaccines trigger autism. However, many studies have not found a connection,
CDC researchers are looking at other possible factors, including illnesses that mothers had while they were pregnant with children who later were diagnosed as autistic. The researchers also are looking into antidepressants and other medications that the pregnant women took and those given to their children when they were young. The first results of that study are expected next year.
Parents are hungry for more answers.
Approaching her second birthday, Cristina Astacio spoke only a few words, wouldn't respond to her name, and shunned other kids in her day-care group in New York. Last October her parents found out why -- specialists said the toddler had autism.
Cristina's parents knew autism was a possibility when Cristina failed to meet many of the developmental milestones they'd seen in their older son. But that didn't make the diagnosis easy to accept.
"I was blaming myself, wondering if there was anything I could have done" to have prevented it, said the girl's mother, Charisse.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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