It has been a meteoric climb. The autism diagnosis rate has shot up nearly 1200% over the past 30 years. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says 1 child in 68 has a form of autism. The rate for boys is even higher, 1 in 42.
"It's a scary moment," said Tara Connors.
Five years ago Connors' son, Riley, became one of those diagnosed.
"When Riley was diagnosed with autism I was not very familiar with the disability," said Connors.
Few parents are familiar with, or prepared for autism until they get the news. Autism is a developmental disorder. It often affects language and social skills. It's also a spectrum disorder, meaning it hits some harder than others. We know those prevalence rates are skyrocketing. We just don't know why.
"You feel like you're charting dark waters with your own child," said Connors.
Five years after being diagnosed things are looking brighter for Riley. He plays soccer and is in a mainstream classroom. The keys to his improvement are the things we do already know about autism. Doctors can detect it earlier and therapies for treating it are improving.
"We started very young with (Riley) with his diagnosis and with his therapy," said Connors. "He is now a happy high functioning well adjusted 7-year-old."
A study out this week found evidence that if treatment begins as early as the first six months of life, it can vastly improve a child's outcome. Researchers say there is even evidence symptoms could be eliminated.
The study was small and experts in the autism field are urging caution, but it does back up what most already knew. Intensive therapy started as early as possible does a make a difference later in life.
Researchers around the country including at UNC Chapel Hill are working on ways to diagnose the disorder earlier. Years ago most children were diagnosed around school age, now many are diagnosed by age two.
Courtney Campbell teaches children with autism at Piedmont Middle School in Union County. 13-year-old Tyler Johnson is one of her students.
"I love Tyler," said Campbell. "Tyler is like the sweetest child ever.'
She's been working with him for three years now and he's making steady progress.
"Our big thing is new things," said Campbell. "He doesn't like new things."
It's fairly typical for a child with autism, but he's learning to give things a shot because of improving teaching strategies being developed through research and collaboration.
"I can find sources. I can find groups," said Campbell. "I'm in a special grad program just for this so there's other educators meeting together to share ideas and to help each other."
Progress isn't cheap. It's estimated we spend, as a nation, more than $11 billion a year educating and caring for children with autism. Experts say the cost for care will only go higher as more children leave school systems and move into adulthood.
It's why the goal for parents and educators is finding a path to independence.
"My hopes and dreams are for him to be able to experience life," said Connors. "Really have what anyone wants for their child and that's just a well-adjusted happy life."