"When you talk to scientists who study this area, there's factors related to genetics, and there's factors related to the environment," Besser said. "But no one really understands what's driving this increase in autism."
Besser said that for now, most states are not well equipped to help families dealing with autism.
"There are only 10 states that require that all insurers provide for children with autism," he said. "There are two dozen more states that are looking at implementing laws in that regard. But [care] is very intensive. Teaching of the children requires services that may cost up to $50,000 upwards a year."
Besser added that in some cases these services – particularly early detection and treatment -- can lead to profound improvements in children with ASD. Dr. Shlomo Shinnar, professor of Neurology, Pediatrics and Epidemiology and Population Health at Montefiore Medical Center in New York, agreed.
"This should reinforce the Academy of Pediatrics recommendations that all children be screened for ASD as part of their health care," Shinnar said, adding that such screening is "especially important, as early recognition and treatment improves outcomes.
"It really needs to be part of the assessment of a child, particularly of a child who appears to have language [and/or] communication issues."
And Dr. Susan Hyman, chief of Neurodevelopmental and Behavioral Pediatrics at the University of Rochester's Golisano Children's Hospital and chair of the AAP's Autism Subcommittee, said she is hopeful the findings could affect research funding for the conditions.
"More epidemiologic research needs to take place," she said, adding that the research is "expensive but important."
It is in these regards that some hope the new numbers will be a boon to families -- and it appears that autism is already getting more attention on the funding front. In a teleconference reporting the October findings, Dr. Tom Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, said President Barack Obama has proposed an increase in funding for autism research from $42 million this year to $48 million next year.
But autism awareness groups will likely use the findings of the report to push for more. Responding to the report, Lisa Ackerman, executive director of the advocacy group Talk About Curing Autism (TACA), said in a statement that the group "strongly believes that we have a national epidemic on our hands that is not being adequately addressed." The rapidity with which the prevalence of ASD is increasing, the organization said, points to an environmental cause for the disorders.
"Therefore," the statement read, "we need to explore and research the environmental triggers that are affecting our children at approximately the same time in their lives -- regardless of race and ethnicity."
Kim stagliano, managing editor of AgeofAutism.com and herself a mother of three children under 16 with autism, said the government must do much more to help families like hers.
"H1N1 got worldwide attention and billions of dollars in less than six months," Stagliano said. "Autism rates continue to climb, and we're virtually ignored."
Bullen, for one, believes that the more the research community can learn about autism spectrum disorders – and why they are so common – the more families will be able to do in order to ensure that their children can contribute to society.