While recent studies suggest a converging role for genetic factors towards risk for nosologically distinct disorders including autism, intellectual disability (ID), and epilepsy, current estimates of autism prevalence fail to take into account the impact of comorbidity of these disorders on autism diagnosis. We aimed to assess the effect of comorbidity on the diagnosis and prevalence of autism by analyzing 11 years (2000-2010) of special education enrollment data on approximately 6.2 million children per year. We found a 331% increase in the prevalence of autism from 2000 to 2010 within special education, potentially due to a diagnostic recategorization from frequently comorbid features such as ID. The decrease in ID prevalence equaled an average of 64.2% of the increase of autism prevalence for children aged 3-18 years. The proportion of ID cases potentially undergoing recategorization to autism was higher (P = 0.007) among older children (75%) than younger children (48%). Some US states showed significant negative correlations between the prevalence of autism compared to that of ID while others did not, suggesting state-specific health policy to be a major factor in categorizing autism. Further, a high frequency of autistic features was observed when individuals with classically defined genetic syndromes were evaluated for autism using standardized instruments. Our results suggest that current ascertainment practices are based on a single facet of autism-specific clinical features and do not consider associated comorbidities that may confound diagnosis. Longitudinal studies with detailed phenotyping and deep molecular genetic analyses are necessary to completely understand the cause of this complex disorder.
Keywords: microdeletion; neurodevelopmental disorders; prevalence; syndrome.
© 2015 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.