Objective: To determine the incidence of autism among children in Olmsted County, Minnesota.
Design: Through the Rochester Epidemiology Project, all inpatient and outpatient diagnoses are indexed for computerized retrieval. This computerized diagnostic index was used to identify children with any developmental disorder. A glossary of symptoms of autism was used to review medical and school records of these children for symptoms consistent with Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM-IV) criteria for autistic disorder.
Setting: Olmsted County, Minnesota. Subjects All residents of Olmsted County 21 years or younger between 1976 and 1997. Main Outcome Measure The incidence of research-identified autism based on DSM-IV criteria for autistic disorder.
Results: The age-adjusted incidence of research-identified autism was 5.5 (95% confidence interval, 1.4-9.5) per 100 000 children from 1980 to 1983 and 44.9 (95% confidence interval, 32.9-56.9) from 1995 to 1997 (8.2-fold increase). This increase was confined to children younger than 10 years who were born after 1987.
Conclusions: The incidence of research-identified autism increased in Olmsted County from 1976 to 1997, with the increase occurring among young children after the introduction of broader, more precise diagnostic criteria, increased availability of services, and increased awareness of autism. Although it is possible that unidentified environmental factors have contributed to an increase in autism, the timing of the increase suggests that it may be due to improved awareness, changes in diagnostic criteria, and availability of services, leading to identification of previously unrecognized young children with autism.