Autism cases skyrocket by 787 percent in just 20 years, study reveals

EXETER, United Kingdom — Autism diagnoses have jumped by nearly eight times in just the last two decades, a new study finds. Although many may associate autism with children and men, researchers at the University of Exeter say doctors are seeing this rise in cases more often among women and adults.

Their study reveals that, between 1998 and 2018, autism diagnoses across the United Kingdom have skyrocketed by 787 percent. Researchers reviewed the medical records of nine million patients to reach these findings.

Specifically, the team discovered that cases of Asperger’s syndrome — a form of autism with no link to intellectual disabilities — were rising before health officials retired that particular diagnosis in 2013. Asperger’s now falls under the greater diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

What’s causing this increase?

Study authors suggest that the near-800-percent rise in autism cases has more to do with increased reporting and better screening methods than an actual increase in the number of people living on the autism spectrum. Despite their findings, researchers say they still can’t rule out the possibility that more people are developing ASD in recent years.

“As there is not really a plausible reason why autism should increase more in adults and females our study suggests the change is probably due to increased identification, and not more people with neurodevelopmental disorders per se,” says lead author Ginny Russell in a university release.

“However, autism is not like a continent awaiting discovery. The definition of what constitutes autism has changed over time, and females and adults were not often thought of as having autism 20 years ago. The vocal work of charities and media coverage, combined with changes in policy has led to more assessment centers for adults, and an autism narrative that many women and girls identify with. Consequently demand for diagnosis has never been higher.”

Changing the narrative around autism

Researchers examined data from the Clinical Practice Research Datalink (CPRD) primary care database to discover this growing trend. In total, 65,665 people received an autism diagnosis in 2018. Moreover, doctors are noting signs of autism in patients at older ages. The team says part of this is likely because diagnosing autism in younger children is a more complex process.

The Exeter team hopes their findings — that more adults and women have ASD — will change the perception that autism is a “male” disorder. The results show autism rates are noticeably growing among females in comparison to male patients. The team adds that this change proves that initiatives to raise awareness and screenings for autism among women and older patients are working.

The findings appear in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.