Surprising New Study Suggests 1 in 38 Kids on the Autism Spectrum

autism and aspergers prevalence

Is the rate of autism spectrums disorders a lot higher than we think?

When U.S. and South Korean researchers set out to measure autism spectrum disorders in a population of 55,000 children, they suspected it would be higher than in previous research (roughly 1 in 110). But even they were surprised at just how much higher it turned out to be.

Today, in the American Journal of Psychiatry, the results of a five year study of 55,000 children reports that 1 in 38 kids is on the autism spectrum.

That’s two and a half times the current estimated rate.

The researchers, from Yale, NYU Medical School, George Washington University and more, used a well-educated, medium-sized city in South Korea, just outside of Seoul for their study (they chose this city because all kids are required to be in school). But they say that results most likely apply to children in the U.S. as well.

The rate of autism is 1 in 38? Here’s why the researchers say this is probably the case:

Most studies that set out to measure the incidence of autism use special education classes or kids in speech and language therapy. Instead, this team of researchers took five years to measure a whole population of kids between seven and 12 years old, not just those who had already been identified as needing special ed.

They say that autism may be under-diagnosed because kids who don’t have behavioral problems and are keeping up with school aren’t likely to be flagged. Meanwhile, these kids may be awkward and struggling with peers and social relationships. In other words, they suspect that unless a kid is failing or causing trouble in school, he may slip through the cracks.

Two thirds of the kids identified in the study as being on the autism spectrum were in mainstream schools.

“There’s no reason to think that South Korea has more children with autism than anyplace in the world,” an author on the study from NYU Medical School told NPR. The point of the study, he said, was the “if you really go look carefully among all children everywhere, you find that things are far more common than you previously expected.”

In a way (and I buy this explanation), they say this isn’t so surprising. Other psychiatric disorders — involving genes, the brain, and the environment — like depression have a relatively high incidence as well. Especially if you go looking for it, instead of, say only measuring people who go to therapy. I also think that the spectrum is so vast (and autism isn’t just one disorder), that it’s not unfeasible that gradients and variations of autism are more common than we think. Not all these 1 in 38 kids have severe language and cognitive impairments — again, some just struggle with peers.

Of course, the point of the study was to measure the incidence of autism, not to speak to the question of whether it’s going up over time. The scientists didn’t seem to indicate this new data meant a rising epidemic of autism — they see it as a result of how they gathered the data.

What do you think? Could the incidence of autism be as high as 1 in 38 kids (or 2.64% of the population)?

Image: flickr

Babble Feature: Getting Real About Autism

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