Are there more children with Autism?

Published on: 5 October 2015

Autism is diagnosed more today than ever before. The latest figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggest one in 66 children under age eight has an autism diagnosis in the USA and some statistics in the UK suggests it may be even higher here.

This is a huge increase in the practice of diagnosing children with autism. Forty years ago people saw autism as an incredibly rare condition with just one in 2,500 children diagnosed.

So are there more children with autism? The podcast below describes a University of Exeter study led by Dr Ginny Russell that aimed to answer this question.

Most researchers, like Professor Uta Frith, a world expert on autism who speaks in the podcast, believe the increase in diagnosed children is simply because clinicians are better at recognising autism. The autism label can be useful, so it is applied to more people. Also, the diagnostic criteria has widened to include less severe cases. And today autism diagnosis is made in younger children than ever before, also increasing the number of children diagnosed with autism.

However, many people, particularly those directly affected by autism, think such explanations can’t tell the whole story. This podcast features two advocates who argue there has been a real increase in the proportion of children who have autistic traits as time has passed. They argue shifts in practice cannot entirely account for such a dramatic increase; and believe there is a real increase in the numbers of children with behaviour characteristic of autism, which may be triggered by modern risk factors. There are multiple theories as to what these risks could be, none of them proven.

The primary question of this research was whether there were more children with the behaviours and symptoms that underpin autism in 2008 compared to 1998. The findings were intriguing - we had not predicted the results. The initial findings are described in the podcast and have also been published in BJ Psych Open.

This research was funded by the ESRC as part of the secondary data analysis initiative.

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