Background: Recent reports have suggested that the prevalence of autism and related spectrum disorders (ASDs) is substantially higher than previously recognised. We sought to quantify prevalence of ASDs in children in South Thames, UK.
Methods: Within a total population cohort of 56 946 children aged 9-10 years, we screened all those with a current clinical diagnosis of ASD (n=255) or those judged to be at risk for being an undetected case (n=1515). A stratified subsample (n=255) received a comprehensive diagnostic assessment, including standardised clinical observation, and parent interview assessments of autistic symptoms, language, and intelligence quotient (IQ). Clinical consensus diagnoses of childhood autism and other ASDs were derived. We used a sample weighting procedure to estimate prevalence.
Findings: The prevalence of childhood autism was 38.9 per 10,000 (95% CI 29.9-47.8) and that of other ASDs was 77.2 per 10,000 (52.1-102.3), making the total prevalence of all ASDs 116.1 per 10,000 (90.4-141.8). A narrower definition of childhood autism, which combined clinical consensus with instrument criteria for past and current presentation, provided a prevalence of 24.8 per 10,000 (17.6-32.0). The rate of previous local identification was lowest for children of less educated parents.
Interpretation: Prevalence of autism and related ASDs is substantially greater than previously recognised. Whether the increase is due to better ascertainment, broadening diagnostic criteria, or increased incidence is unclear. Services in health, education, and social care will need to recognise the needs of children with some form of ASD, who constitute 1% of the child population.