Autism rates significantly higher than previously thought, especially among certain races

CAMBRIDGE, United Kingdom — In comparison to the United States, scientists have believed that autism is a much less common condition among British children. A new report is now changing that assumption, revealing autism rates abroad are much more in line with the U.S.

Researchers from the University of Cambridge say around one in 57 children in the U.K. have autism. It’s a noticeable jump from the one in 64 pupils previously thought to be autistic. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in America, one in 54 children fall onto the autism spectrum.

The study of more than seven million youngsters also reveals Black and Chinese children are more likely to receive an autism diagnosis than other Brits. Meanwhile, researchers say boys are far more likely than girls to have an autism spectrum disorder.

The study finds pupils with a history of autism were 60 percent more likely to also be socially disadvantaged. Additionally, these children were 36 percent less likely to speak English. The rise in autism diagnoses, experts say, is likely due to improved recognition of the condition over recent years.

“We can now see that autism is much more common than previously thought,” says lead researcher Dr. Andres Roman-Urrestarazu of the Autism Research Centre (ARC) in a university release.

“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.”

Racial disparities in autism rates

The new study, based on school records that usually underestimate the actual proportion of children who meet diagnostic criteria, shows a considerable increase in the autism prevalence in England. One of the more striking details is that Black children are 26 percent more likely to receive an autism diagnosis. Moreover, Chinese pupils had a 38 percent higher chance.

Irish and “traveler” children (an umbrella term for groups who have frequently travelled from place to place) had the lowest instances of autism. Just 0.85 percent of children from these backgrounds appear on the autism spectrum.

Almost a fifth of youngsters with the condition (18.1%) also developed learning difficulties, the results show. Among boys and girls, autism affects more males at a rate of over 4:1. Just under three in 100 boys (2.8%) developed autism, compared to just 0.65 percent of young girls in the country.

“This study highlights the need for more attention to the unrecognized and differing needs of autistic children from disadvantaged and diverse backgrounds,” says Professor Fiona Matthews of Newcastle University.

“We can now see a snapshot of how many autistic children there are, and can drill down into local and ethnic variation, and reveal links with vulnerability,” adds Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, Director of ARC. “It is important that we safeguard the rights of children to access diagnostic services and education, tailored to their needs.”

The findings appear in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.

SWNS writer William Janes contributed to this report.