News that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) updated its autism diagnosis estimate to 1 out of every 50 children drew the attention educators, parents of children with autism, and autism awareness advocates, all of whom say they hope schools can serve students on the autism spectrum, which includes a staggeringly wide range of student abilities and needs under its umbrella.

The new diagnosis numbers are “striking, especially when we put it into context,” said Nina Finkler, director of outreach for Eden Autism Services. This means that almost 750,000 individuals in the U.S. are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, and it is now the most frequently diagnosed childhood disorder, diagnosed more than cancer, diabetes, and other childhood illnesses combined.

Several factors contribute to autism’s increased prevalence, Finkler said. Twenty years ago, awareness surrounding autism spectrum disorder and what it meant was limited. Most children diagnosed with autism were previously thought to be hard or impossible to educate, and they often were placed in programs for children with emotional disturbances.

(Next page: How new definitions of autism spectrum disorder may impact schools)