Autism: study finds 12-fold rise in cases

Number of sufferers may be up to 50 per cent higher, putting pressure on services

The number of children with autism has risen 12-fold in the past 30 years and may be 50 per cent higher than previously suspected, the most detailed study of the condition yet has found.

Up to 250,000 children have autism or a related condition on the autistic spectrum, but have not been diagnosed, researchers say. They are in addition to the 500,000 children who are known to be affected.

The authoritative study by Professor Simon Baron-Cohen and colleagues of the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge University, published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, sets a new benchmark for future studies of the prevalence of autism in the UK, and has grave implications for education and other public services which are already overstretched. The findings imply that many more young people may need intensive lifelong support.

But the authors dismissed suggestions that changes in lifestyle or the environment were behind the rise. They put it down to improved awareness and detection, and the inclusion of milder conditions within the diagnosis.

Autism is a disorder of social functioning which makes it difficult for sufferers to form relationships and to communicate with other people. In the 1990s it was recognised that there was a spectrum of cases from the severely to the mildly affected, and the diagnosis of Asperger's syndrome was included to cover those at the milder end.

Autism has become controversial over the last 10 years because of a claimed link with the MMR vaccine, which has since been discredited. The rise in cases was cited by campaigners as evidence for the damaging effects of MMR, which was introduced in 1988.

In 2006, researchers from Guy's and St Thomas' medical school calculated that 1 per cent of the population had a diagnosis on the autistic spectrum, equivalent to 500,000 children. That figure has become the gold standard in autism research.

Now Professor Baron-Cohen has revised the figure, using three separate research methods for increased accuracy on a population of 20,000 children in Cambridgeshire.

A survey of Cambridge school registers of children with special educational needs revealed 1 per cent of children affected. This was confirmed by a questionnaire survey of parents which uncovered 41 cases. But a subsequent screening test given to the same parents, designed to detect children with autism, revealed an additional 11 children who were undiagnosed.

The results showed that, when the undiagnosed cases were included, one in 64 children had the condition, equivalent to 1.5 per cent of the population. Extrapolating them to the whole population raised the total number of children affected from 500,000 to 750,000. For every three cases that are diagnosed, a further two may be undiagnosed, the researchers concluded.

Professor Baron-Cohen said: "If services are trying to plan ahead they have to take into account that for every three cases they know about there may be two more they don't. That is important. Currently many services are stretched, they are barely managing to keep up and there are long waits for diagnosis."

He added: "Not everyone may need a diagnosis if they are already getting good support. But services need to be prepared. People usually seek a diagnosis when things start to go wrong, for example when they leave home and are losing the support of parents."

The National Autistic Society said early diagnosis was essential. Parents often wait years for accurate diagnosis. Mark Lever, NAS Chief Executive, said: "An accurate figure for the number of people with autism... is vital to ensure a sufficient level of services and appropriate support to meet people's needs."

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Argyll Scott International: Senior Business Analyst- Insurance

    Negotiable: Argyll Scott International: Senior Business Analyst - Insurance ...

    Recruitment Genius: Property Manager

    £25000 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This independent, growing Sales...

    Recruitment Genius: Graphic Designer

    £16000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Multi-skilled graphic designer ...

    Austen Lloyd: Court of Protection Solicitor

    £30000 - £50000 per annum + EXCELLENT: Austen Lloyd: Court of Protection Solic...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
    Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

    24-Hour party person

    Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
    Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

    A taste for rebellion

    US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
    Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

    Colouring books for adults

    How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
    Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
    Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

    Call me Ed Mozart

    Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire
    10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    Festive treats: 10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    From boozy milk to wasabi, give the food-lover in your life some extra-special, unusual treats to wake up to on Christmas morning
    Phil Hughes head injury: He had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Phil Hughes had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Prolific opener had world at his feet until Harmison and Flintoff bounced him
    'I have an age of attraction that starts as low as four': How do you deal with a paedophile who has never committed a crime?

    'I am a paedophile'

    Is our approach to sex offenders helping to create more victims?
    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    Serco given Yarl’s Wood immigration contract despite ‘vast failings’
    Green Party on the march in Bristol: From a lost deposit to victory

    From a lost deposit to victory

    Green Party on the march in Bristol
    Putting the grot right into Santa's grotto

    Winter blunderlands

    Putting the grot into grotto
    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?' London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital

    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?'

    London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital