Autism in children is much more common than previously reported and there are notable differences in prevalence of the conditions across ethnic groups.
This is according to an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) study, which the researchers believe is the largest to date, that found 1.76% of children in England have a diagnosis of autism.
The research was carried out by the University of Newcastle and published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics and showed autism prevalence differs across geographical location as well as across ethnic groups, and has links to social disadvantage.
ASD is a group of neurodevelopmental conditions that are characterised by long term difficulties in social interaction and communication, as well as restrictive interests and repetitive behaviours. According to the NHS, it is currently unclear what causes autism.
Using data from the Department for Education, the researchers looked at the results of the Spring School Census in January 2017, a termly survey of pupils aged 2-21 in state-funded education, which forms part of the National Pupil Database. There were 119,821 autism diagnoses on pupil records, with 18% of these pupils also suffering from learning disabilities. Autism was most prevalent in pupils of black ethnicity, with 2.1% of this community being on the autistic spectrum.
The rise in the number of children having a diagnosis of autism on their school records is likely to be because autism has become better recognised by both parents and schools in recent years, according to the researchers.
Dr Andres Roman-Urrestarazu from the Autism Research Centre (ARC) at the University of Cambridge, who collaborated on the project, 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.’
The researchers also found that pupils who had an autism diagnosis were 60% more likely to be socially disadvantaged and 36% less likely to speak English.
Professor Fiona Matthews, Professor of Epidemiology at Newcastle University, added: ‘This study highlights the need for more attention to the unrecognised and differing needs of autistic children from disadvantaged and diverse backgrounds.’