Autism more common than previously thought, say researchers

A group of children sitting round a table in a classroom
Over seven million students were studied by researchers Credit: PA

Autism is more common than previously thought and socially disadvantaged children are more likely to be autistic, new large-scale research from the University of Cambridge suggests.

Around one in 57 (1.76%) children in England is on the autistic spectrum, a study of more than seven million young people concluded.

The research, by scientists at the Cambridge’s Department of Psychiatry alongside researchers from Newcastle University and Maastricht University, also found that black and Chinese pupils are 26% and 38% more likely to be autistic respectively.

Previous estimates of the prevalence of autism by the same research group in Cambridge suggested fewer children – one in 64 (1.57%) – are autistic.

Researchers said the increase is likely to be due to the fact that autism has become better recognised by both parents and schools in recent years.

Pupils with a record of autism in schools are 60% more likely to also be socially disadvantaged, and 36% less likely to speak English, researchers said.

Scientists used information from the national pupil database covering those aged between two and 21 in state-funded schools in England.

Of the more than 7,047,301 pupils studied, 119,821 had a diagnosis of autism in their educational record.

Almost a fifth – 21,660 or 18.1% – also had learning difficulties, the research published in the journal JAMA Paediatrics said.

Boys showed a prevalence of autism of 2.8% and girls showed a prevalence of 0.65%.

Autism prevalence was highest in pupils of black ethnicity (2.1%) and lowest in Roma/Irish Travellers (0.85%), with scientists saying these estimates are the first to be published for these populations.

Lead researcher Dr Andres Roman-Urrestarazu, from the Autism Research Centre (ARC) and Cambridge Public Health at the University of Cambridge, said: “We can now see that autism is much more common than previously thought.

“We also found significant variations in autism diagnosis in different ethnic minorities, though the reason why this should be the case isn’t clear and warrants further research.”

Professor Fiona Matthews, from Newcastle University, said the study “highlights the need for more attention to the unrecognised and differing needs of autistic children from disadvantaged and diverse backgrounds”.

Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, director of the ARC, said: “We can now see a snapshot of how many autistic children there are, and can drill down into local and ethnic variation, and reveal links with vulnerability.

“It is important that we safeguard the rights of children to access diagnostic services and education, tailored to their needs.”