EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The rate at which autism spectrum disorder is being diagnosed in young children has skyrocketed, according to a study released last week.

The study, published by the American Academy of Pediatrics, states that the rate of autism diagnoses has tripled over the last 16 years.

It also noted that the spikes were primarily among “affluent children,” which could mean families living in underserved communities don’t have the same medical resources.

Dr. Kristen Knapp-Ines, a licensed clinical psychologist at Bradley Hospital, tells 12 News there are a number of reasons why this could be happening.

Those reasons include improved ways to diagnose children, a broader definition of autism and increased awareness.

“Thirty to forty years ago, only the most severely affected people [were diagnosed],” Knapp-Ines said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that, roughly one in 44 children have been diagnosed with a form of autism nationally.

When asked whether she’s seen an uptick in diagnoses locally, Knapp-Ines said yes.

Knapp-Ines said that, in 2001, 407 children were diagnosed with autism in Rhode Island. Two decades later, that number increased to 2,641 kids.

“Autism is a neuro-developmental disorder, meaning it affects the brain and how the brain functions,” Knapp-Ines explained. “It’s very broad, which is why it’s called autism spectrum disorder.”

“That doesn’t mean the brain is defective, it just means that their processing is different,” she added.

The CDC said autism typically presents itself prior to a child’s 3rd birthday and can last throughout their lifetime, though symptoms may improve and vary.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends all children be formally screened for autism spectrum disorder during their 18-month and 2-year wellness checkups.

“At a very early age, sometimes it’s not even autism specific characteristics, like the communication or socialization deficits, that people are noticing,” Knapp-Ines said. “It’s maybe more the daily struggles, like when the child has a meltdown when the wooden blocks aren’t in the same order as they had encountered previously, or maybe the peas are touching the chicken nuggets on the plate.”

Knapp-Ines said that, while most children may have meltdowns every now and then, the difference when it comes to autism is the intensity.

“There is that significant meltdown that seems to not end and feels like the world is going down,” she explained.

“The Autism Project” teaches children and teenagers with autism critical skills while creating and communication

Joanne Quinn, executive director of The Autism Project, tells 12 News her son was diagnosed 24 years ago.

“Frankly, I was horrified when it hit one in 2,500 people,” she recalled. “Now it’s one in 44 and no one blinks an eye.”

For 25 years, The Autism Project has provided training, education and social support for children and teenagers with autism.