Autism Spectrum Disorders Update: New Study Shows Prevalence Much Greater Than Suspected

A Brain Research Foundation funded research project indicated the prevalence for autism spectrum disorders (ASD) to be nearly three times previous estimates. This ground breaking study conducted in Korea over five years indicated a prevalence estimate for ASD to be 2.64% of the population, compared to less than 1% in previous studies. 

This research was conducted by a multinational group of scientists, led by BRF Investigators Young Shin Kim, M.D., Ph.D., M.P.H., and Bennett L. Leventhal, M.D. The results were recently published online in the American Journal of Psychiatry

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, children with ASD demonstrate deficits in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication, and repetitive behaviors or interests. In addition, they will often have unusual responses to sensory experiences, such as certain sounds or the way objects look. Each of these symptoms runs the gamut from mild to severe. This study is important because there has been concern about reports over the past four decades indicating that ASD prevalence is increasing. Some have been concerned about new causes of the disorder in the environment, however the researchers suggest that a variety of factors contribute to the growing prevalence.

It is likely that there are many children in our schools who have an autism spectrum disorder that have not been identified and are not being provided treatments that can improve their functioning.

The BRF-funded study was unique in that it attempted to screen all 55,000 children between the ages of 7 and 12 in a Korean community. This group included those previously identified to have

special needs as well as all children with no history of problems attending regular education classes. It is noteworthy that the children previously identified as having ASD constituted 0.7% of the community and a remarkable 1.9% of the children were in regular classes without any prior diagnosis or treatment. “Dr. Kim and our team expect the prevalence of autism spectrum

disorders in the United States and in other countries will be in the range of 2 to 3 percent,” said Dr. Leventhal, a study leader who also serves on the BRF Board. “It is likely that there are many children in our schools who have an autism spectrum disorder that have not been identified and are not being provided treatments that can improve their functioning.” 

The study researchers emphasized that autism is a global public health concern affecting all world areas. 

“These dramatic results underscore how much we still have to learn about ASD and so many other neurological disorders and the great need to increase research, especially early stage research,” said Terre A. Constantine, Ph.D., BRF Executive Director. “Dr. Kim and her entire team are to be commended but the work to understand this disorder and so many others is just beginning.” 

The ASD study was primarily funded by a BRF grant with additional support from the Institute for Ethnographic Research and Autism Speaks.

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