Is Autism Common? 

is autism common?

The understanding and terminology of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) has changed significantly over the years. Initially labeled as “pervasive developmental disorder” in the mid-20th century, autism diagnoses were primarily seen as rare and isolated cases. It wasn’t until the 1980s that the term “autism” gained prominence. Around the same time, Hans Asperger’s work on “Asperger Syndrome” highlighted a milder form of ASD. Over the years, the diagnostic criteria and categorization of developmental disorders evolved, leading to the concept of a spectrum. This shift recognized the diverse range of individuals affected by ASD, with varying degrees of severity and symptom presentation. This acknowledgement paved the way for more comprehensive understanding and support for those on the spectrum.

Just how common is Autism Spectrum Disorder? Understanding how common Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is in children and adults continues to be a hot topic for parents, teachers, and practitioners. Learning more about prevalence and related facts, as well as how prevalence rates are measured, can help support families and promote advocacy and autism awareness.

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What Causes Autism?

The causes of autism are a subject of ongoing research, with a complex interplay of genetic and environmental factors coming into play. Genetic factors play a significant role in the development of autism.  There is a higher risk of autism diagnosed in individuals who have a family history of the condition. Studies have shown that one or both parents with a history of autism are more likely to have children with autism. Additionally, researchers have identified specific autism genetic mutations and variations that contribute to the disorder’s prevalence. The American Psychiatric Association recognizes the genetic component in its diagnostic criteria for autism spectrum disorder.

While genetic factors are influential, environmental factors also play a role. Some researchers believe that environmental factors during pregnancy or early childhood may contribute to autism risk, though the precise mechanisms are not fully understood. These environmental factors might include prenatal exposure to certain toxins or infections. Overall, the prevalence of autism in the United States is the result of a complex interplay between genetic and environmental influences.  Ongoing research is crucial to sort through the factors that contribute to this condition.

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What are the Signs of ASD?

What are the Signs of ASD?

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is characterized by a wide range of symptoms and behaviors. Some of the most common signs of autism include:

  • challenges in social interaction
  • difficulty making and maintaining eye contact
  • struggle with understanding and expressing emotions
  • finding it hard to engage in typical back-and-forth conversations

Communication difficulties are also prevalent, with many individuals with ASD experiencing delayed language development or limited use of verbal communication. Some may use alternative forms of communication, like gestures or assistive technology. Repetitive behaviors and intense focus on specific interests are often observed.  These can manifest as:

  • repetitive body movements
  • fixations on particular topics
  • adherence to rigid routines

Sensory sensitivities are another hallmark of autism, with heightened or diminished responses to sensory stimuli like:

  • lights
  • sounds
  • textures
  • tastes

Many individuals with autism may also display a preference for sameness and struggle with transitions or unexpected changes.

How is Someone Diagnosed with ASD?

Diagnosing autism involves a thorough assessment of a person’s behavior and development. Usually, it starts when someone notices signs of autism like trouble with socializing, talking, and engaging in repetitive behaviors. These signs are often noticed by parents, teachers, or healthcare professionals. During the evaluation, the doctor looks at medical and developmental history.  They also consider if there is a previous diagnosis of an intellectual disability. School and medical records may provide valuable insights into a person’s developmental trajectory. A team of doctors, psychologists, and speech therapists diagnose ASD using tests and observations. This comprehensive evaluation ensures an accurate diagnosis and helps tailor appropriate interventions and support.

How Common is Autism in the US? 

How Common is Autism in the US? 

According to the last published findings in 2023, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), estimates that 1 in 36 children has a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder. In total, it’s estimated that more than 3.5 million individuals in the United States currently have an ASD diagnosis. 

Group Differences in ASD

Among those 1 in 36 children with an autism diagnosis, the CDC also reports breakdowns by gender, race and socioeconomic status. Autism affects 4 in 10 boys, compared to 1 in 10 girls. Boys are four times more likely to be diagnosed by the age of 8 than girls. While it’s unclear why this occurs, there does seem to be a statistically higher prevalence in boys. 

Autism occurs in all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups. There are no statistical differences in prevalence among these groups. However, there are large differences in how early and how often minority groups receive a diagnosis. Major disparities in access to early diagnosis and early intervention occur in minority and economically disadvantaged communities, particularly for Hispanic and Latino children. These differences can also translate into differences in educational and social outcomes for minority autistic children.

Geographic Differences in ASD Reporting

Along with racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic differences, there also seem to be geographic differences in autism rates in the United States. In New Jersey, autism rates are as high as 1 in 34 children. 

In Arkansas, where there are fewer rural service providers, autism impacts 1 in 77 children, a rate much lower than the national average. This suggests that despite diagnostic advances in the United States, regional differences exist in helping children and families access services they need. It’s possible that the national average of 1 in 59 may be much higher.

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How Common is Autism Worldwide?

How Common is Autism Worldwide?

While the CDC rigorously monitors the American prevalence of Autism Spectrum Disorder, what are the autism statistics worldwide? The Worldwide Health Organizations (WHO) reports global autism prevalence at 1 in 160 children. This figure continues to fluctuate though, as more countries and physicians around the world understand and diagnose ASD in children. Some estimates indicate the worldwide rate much higher.

Inconsistent diagnostic criteria contribute to the lack of information about global rates of autism. While most countries use the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5) criteria to diagnose Autism Spectrum Disorders, we lack a global definition of autism. This also creates challenges in calculating autism prevalence in other countries. 

Other nations may under or over diagnose autism when using different diagnostic criteria for the disorder. 

As an example of the wide range of reporting, Canada’s National Autism Spectrum Disorder Surveillance System (NASS) regularly reports autism statistics just like the CDC.  In 2018, 1 in 66 Canadian children had a diagnosis of ASD. In contrast, there are no known formal calculations of ASD epidemiology in Africa. The incidence rate there remains largely unknown. 

Are Rates of Autism Rising? 

Along with autism prevalence rates, the CDC also calculates how these rates change over time. In 2000, 1 in 150 children were diagnosed with autism. Since then, autism rates have increased steadily, roughly 6 to 15% year over year. Autism now ranks as the fastest-growing developmental disability in the United States. Autism statistics are not always accurate in low-and middle-income countries. However, global rates of autism are also on the rise

Increase in Rate or Better Diagnosis?

Researchers in the United States are questioning whether the increasing autism rates are due to better diagnoses and education. By measuring the prevalence of autism in adults, teens, and young children ages four to eight, the CDC estimates whether prevalence continues to increase, decrease, or remain stable. At this time, the CDC data indicates ASD is indeed on the rise in young children. 

Other Trends in Autism Statistics

Not only do we understand statistics about the prevalence of autism, but we also understand some important characteristics of how the disorder impacts children and families. These include: 

●    One-third of individuals with autism are non-verbal. While most individuals with autism eventually learn to speak, a significant minority do not. Recent advances in adaptive communication devices have improved communication for these individuals, however, more research lags far behind in helping this sub-set of ASD families.

●    Autism commonly occurs with other diagnoses. Known as co-morbid conditions, individuals with autism regularly have other diagnoses. 83% of individuals with autism have one or more non-ASD developmental diagnoses. 

10% of these co-occurrences are one or more psychiatric diagnoses. Many children with autism also have chronic gastrointestinal disorders and nearly eight times more likely to suffer from them than other children. 

●    Studies show that more than half of children with autism suffer from sleep problems.  Regardless of an ASD diagnosis, chronic sleep issues impact a child’s learning and impact the quality of life for parents and family members.  Researchers continue to look for strategies to support a better night’s sleep for children with ASD. Better sleep can improve daytime learning and help parents better cope with the additional stressors of ASD. 

●    Early intervention offers children the greatest opportunities for later success.  Along with autism prevalence statistics, the CDC also provides information to families about treatment and intervention. 

Research demonstrates that the earlier a child receives a diagnosis and treatment, the better outcomes he or she will have later in life. Getting help early on is important for developing language and social skills to overcome autism.  

●    Each year, roughly 50,000 teens age out of school-based services into adulthood.  Many parents and families are concerned that services for teens and adults with ASD are not as good as those for young children. We need more research and funding to help people with autism find housing, jobs, and support.

While the information and statistics answering the question “Is Autism Common?” continues to improve, more work remains. Early childhood screening and can diagnosis dramatically improve later outcomes. More research and advocacy is necessary to make sure all children receive access to the care they need and deserve.

Amy Sippl

Applied Behavior Analysis | Saint Cloud State University

Bachelor of Arts (B.A.), Psychology | University of Minnesota

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