One child out of 88 is believed to have autism or a related disorder, an increase in the rate attributed largely to wider screening.
Advocacy groups seized on the new number as further evidence that autism research and services should get more attention.
"Autism is now officially becoming an epidemic in the United States," said Mark Roithmayr, president of Autism Speaks, at a news conference where the new figures were released Thursday.
The previous estimate was 1 in 110. The new figure is from the latest in a series of studies that have steadily raised the government's autism estimate. This new number means autism is almost twice as common as officials said it was only five years ago, and likely affects almost 1 million U.S. children and teens.
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Health officials attribute the increase largely to better recognition of cases, through wider screening and better diagnosis. But the search for the cause of autism is really only beginning, and officials acknowledge that other factors may be helping to drive up the numbers.
"One thing the data tells us with certainty -- there are many children and families who need help," said Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the agency that released the estimate.
Christine Lindgren, director of the Carson Kolzig Foundation's Responding to Autism Center in Kennewick, said the center is seeing more families who either want to have a child screened for autism or want to know where to find support services.
Lindgren said the center has had to open additional screening days to meet the demand, which she attributed to a combination of better awareness among parents about what to look for, and better screening tools.
The center has served more than 500 families in less than a year, and the number is going up, she said.
"We're going on our second year and we're seeing new families all the time," she said.
For decades, an autism diagnosis was given only to kids with severe language, intellectual and social impairments and unusual, repetitious behaviors. But the definition of the disorder has gradually expanded, so that now "autism" is also shorthand for a group of milder, related conditions, including Asperger's syndrome.
Still, Melissa Miller, a St. Petersburg, Fla., mom whose daughter, Chelsea, was diagnosed last year at age 2, said many people misunderstand the disorder.
"I think many people hear 'autism' and think Rain Man," she said, referring to the 1988 movie featuring Dustin Hoffman as an extremely socially impaired autistic man.
There are no blood or biologic tests for autism, so diagnosis is not an exact science. It's identified by making judgments about a child's behavior.
Meanwhile, there's been an explosion in autism-related treatment and services for children. In 1990, Congress added autism as a separate disability category to a federal law that guarantees special education services. School districts have been building up autism-addressing programs since.
The CDC study is considered the most comprehensive U.S. investigation of autism prevalence to date. Researchers gathered data from areas in 14 states -- Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, Missouri, New Jersey, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Utah and Wisconsin.
They looked specifically at 8-year-old children because most autism is diagnosed by that age. They checked health and school records to see which children met the criteria for autism, even if they hadn't been formally diagnosed. Then, the researchers calculated how common autism was in each place and overall.
An earlier report based on 2002 findings estimated that about 1 in 150 children that age had autism or a related disorder such as Asperger's. After seeing 2006 data, the figure was revised to about 1 in 110. The estimate of 1 in 88, based on 2008 data, is about 1.1 percent of kids that age.
The study also found that autism disorders were almost five times more common in boys, while a growing number of black and Hispanic children were also reported to have them.
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. 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.