Autism more common than previously thought, major Cambridge University study finds

University of Cambridge research which looked at more than seven million young people has found that autism is more common than previously thought.

The study found that one in 57 children in England (1.76 per cent) is on the autistic spectrum.

Previous estimates of the prevalence of autism by the same research group in Cambridge suggested fewer children – one in 64 (1.57 per cent) – are autistic.

The research, by scientists at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Psychiatry alongside researchers from Newcastle University and Maastricht University, also found that black and Chinese pupils are 26 per cent and 38 per cent more likely to be autistic respectively.

The authors said the increase is likely to be due to the fact that autism has become better recognised by both parents and schools in recent years.

Pupils with a record of autism in schools are 60 per cent more likely to also be socially disadvantaged, and 36 per cent less likely to speak English, researchers said.

Scientists used information from the national pupil database covering those aged between two and 21 in state-funded schools in England.

Of the more than 7,047,301 pupils studied, 119,821 had a diagnosis of autism in their educational record.

Almost a fifth – 21,660 or 18.1 per cent – also had learning difficulties, the research published in the journal JAMA Paediatrics said.

Boys showed a prevalence of autism of 2.8 per cent and girls showed a prevalence of 0.65 per cent.

Autism prevalence was highest in pupils of black ethnicity (2.1 per cent) and lowest in Roma/Irish Travellers (0.85 per cent), with scientists saying these estimates are the first to be published for these populations.

Lead researcher Dr Andres Roman-Urrestarazu, from the Autism Research Centre (ARC) and Cambridge Public Health at the University of Cambridge, 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.”

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

Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, director of the ARC, said: “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.

“It is important that we safeguard the rights of children to access diagnostic services and education, tailored to their needs.”

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