Background: The incidence of autism rose dramatically between 1992 and 2001, while the age at which children were first diagnosed declined. During this period the size and composition of the autism caseload has changed, but little is known about whether the factors associated with the timing of diagnosis may also have shifted. Using a multilevel analysis strategy, the individual and community-level factors associated with age of diagnosis were modelled across 10 birth cohorts of California children.
Methods: Linked birth and administrative records on 17,185 children with diagnoses of autistic disorder born in California between 1992 and 2001 and enrolled with the California Department of Developmental Services (DDS) were analysed. Information on cases, their parents and their residential location were extracted from birth and DDS records. Zip codes of residence were matched to census data to create community-level measures. Multilevel linear models were estimated for each birth cohort, with individual-level effects for sex, race, parental characteristics, poverty status, birth order and symptom expression. At the community level measures of educational and economic composition, local autism prevalence and the presence of a child psychiatrist were included.
Results: Children with highly educated parents are diagnosed earlier, and this effect has strengthened over time. There is a persistent gap in the age of diagnosis between high and low socioeconomic status (SES) children that has shrunk but not disappeared over time.
Conclusion: Routine screening for autism in early childhood for all children, particularly those of low SES, is necessary to eliminate disparities in early intervention.