Approximately 1.8% of children in the U.S. have a diagnosis of autism, a rate that has more than doubled over the past two decades. In 2020, people of all races and socioeconomic groups are impacted by the disorder.
Worldwide, roughly 1 in 160 people is thought to have autism. This number is likely much higher, however, as there is limited data available from low- and middle-income countries.
People around the world struggle with challenges associated with autism, such as mental health issues, intellectual disabilities, and health concerns. Many of these people don’t have access to necessary treatment.
Changes to the diagnostic criteria of autism over time have contributed to the increase in diagnoses and people seeking treatment for the disorder. Autism therapy, such as ABA therapy, can greatly improve the outlook for a person with autism. This kind of targeted treatment reduces negative behavior, teaches necessary life skills, and improves overall performance for autistic individuals.
While there is no cure for autism, early intervention services can help to reduce lifetime health care costs substantially. It is estimated that the lifetime cost of autism can be as high as $2 million per person.
Rates of Autism in 2020
Autism is a common developmental condition, affecting approximately 1 in 54 children in the United States. Far more boys are diagnosed with autism than girls (1 in 34 boys versus 1 in 144 girls).
Most diagnoses are made after the age of 4, though a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can be reliably made by the age of 2. Earlier screening tools are being used to catch cases earlier, allowing for therapy to begin at the soonest point possible, which results in the most successful outcomes.
All ethnic and socioeconomic groups are affected by autism. There is no medical test or cure for the disorder.
The exact cause of autism is unknown, though many risk factors have been identified.
- There is a genetic link to autism. If there is a family history of autism, it raises the likelihood that a child will develop autism.
- Parental age is a factor. Children born to older parents have a higher risk of autism.
- If your first child has ASD, your second child has a 2% to 18% chance of also having ASD.
- Despite past media coverage, there is no connection between childhood vaccines and ASD.
The Demographics of Autism
Studies have found that all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups are impacted by autism.
When evaluating the impact of socioeconomic status on ASD diagnoses, researchers have found that the prevalence of ASD increases with socioeconomic status. This could be due in part to greater access to health care and therefore a higher likelihood of receiving a diagnosis.
Researchers have also identified racial and ethnic differences in the prevalence of autism. Among black, white, and Hispanic children, the difference in the prevalence of ASD has remained relatively consistent over time, especially among those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.
Black and white children see nearly identical prevalence of ASD. Hispanic children, however, are less likely to receive an autism diagnosis.
Autism advocates are striving to expand access to diagnostic testing and subsequent services for children in underrepresented populations. The sooner children receive intervention services, the more they are likely to gain from them. This increases the chances that they will effectively acquire essential life skills for independent learning and living as they grow up.
Autism Among Children in the United States
In an effort to track the number and characteristics of children in the U.S. with autism, the CDC established the Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring (ADDM) Network in 2000. The network collects data from 11 sites throughout the country in order to better understand the impact of ASD in different communities.
The 11 surveillance areas vary in their data set. For example, Arkansas’s site consists of all 75 counties in the state, whereas Maryland’s site is just one county in the Baltimore metro area.
Data published in the most recent ADDM Network report, which was released in March 2020, revealed significant shifts and differences in ASD diagnoses and prevalence around the country. Overall, ASD estimates increased significantly across the country, with some sites exhibiting much higher rates of autism than others.
In 2016, the prevalence of ASD among 8-year-old children living across the 11 sites was as follows:
- Arizona: 1.6%
- Arkansas: 1.5%
- Colorado: 1.3%
- Georgia: 1.9%
- Maryland: 1.9%
- Minnesota: 2.3%
- Missouri: 1.4%
- New Jersey: 3.1%
- North Carolina: 2.5%
- Tennessee: 1.6%
- Wisconsin: 1.7%
Researchers from the ADDM Network are still gathering information to better understand why prevalence rates vary so much between sites.
While there was no overall difference in autism prevalence among black and white children, there were disparities in early diagnoses and interventions for black children. On average, black and Hispanic children received initial evaluations and diagnoses later than white children, as well as more delayed opportunities for early intervention services.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), approximately 1 in 160 children worldwide has ASD. In most cases, symptoms of autism become apparent before the age of 5 and persist into adulthood.
Other conditions may occur alongside autism. While these conditions often present additional difficulties to children and families, some can be beneficial, such as higher intellectual aptitudes in specific areas. The following are common co-occurring conditions for people with autism:
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Intellectual disability
- Superior intellectual abilities
Many experts believe the prevalence of ASD worldwide to be much higher than the reported rate of 1 in 160. The frequency of autism in many low- and middle-income countries is widely unknown, and some global studies have reported much higher prevalence statistics.
Regardless of the current rate of autism around the world, data does show that the prevalence of ASD around the world is increasing in 2020.
Reasons for the increase in global ASD prevalence in 2020 include:
- Improved awareness of the condition.
- An expansion of diagnostic criteria over the last 50 years.
- Better diagnostic tools.
- Improved reporting methods.
People with autism face specific complications that expose them to certain risks. Due to the nature of autism, people on the spectrum often encounter social difficulties, as well as health and safety challenges that neurotypical people are less likely to face.
Autism Speaks outlines some stats on issues that are common in autistic individuals. People with autism are at a much higher risk of:
- Being nonverbal. Roughly a third of people with autism spectrum disorder are nonverbal.
- Being bullied. Almost two-thirds of children with ASD between the ages of 6 and 15 have been bullied by their peers.
- Engaging in self-harming behavior. Almost 28% of 8-year-old children with autism exhibit self-injurious behaviors, such as banging their head against hard surfaces, biting their arms, or scratching their skin.
- Drowning. A leading cause of death in children with autism is drowning.
- Having an intellectual disability. Over 30% of people with ASD also have a co-occurring intellectual disability.
- Being diagnosed with ADHD. Approximately 30% to 60% of children with ASD are also diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
- Experiencing sleep issues. Over 50% of children with ASD experience a chronic sleep disorder.
- Having depression. Roughly 7% of children and 26% of adults with autism experience depression.
- Having epilepsy. Up to a third of people with ASD also have epilepsy.
- Being diagnosed with schizophrenia. Between 4% and 35% of adults with autism are also diagnosed with schizophrenia, compared to just over 1% of the regular population.
- Struggling with weight issues. Among children 2 to 5 years old with autism, 32% are overweight and 16% are obese.
Autism is a complex disorder with far-reaching mental, emotional, and physical health implications.
When Did Autism First Become a Diagnosis?
The term autism was first introduced in 1943 to describe children who exhibited socially withdrawn and isolated behaviors. Children who received a diagnosis of autism likely showed severe behaviors, and children with milder symptoms may have gone unnoticed.
Since 1943, the definition and diagnostic criteria of autism have evolved greatly.
- 1966: Autism prevalence was believed to be roughly 1 in 2,500 children.
- 1980: Autism spectrum disorder was first included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).
- 1987: A new edition of the DSM expanded the diagnostic criteria so that 8 of 16 criteria had to be met in order to receive a diagnosis, rather than all 6 of the previously listed criteria.
- 1994: The DSM-IV added Asperger syndrome under the definition of ASD, broadening diagnostic criteria again.
- 2013: The DSM-5 combined autism, Asperger syndrome, and pervasive developmental disorder all under the label of autism.
The broadening of the definition and diagnostic criteria of autism has contributed to the steady increase in ASD diagnoses over the past decades. Combined with more awareness of the disorder, more people are receiving an autism diagnosis early in life and gaining access to essential services.
Changes in Autism Statistics Over Time
Over the last two decades, the number of autism diagnoses has more than doubled. In 2000, about 1 in 150 children was diagnosed with ASD, compared to 1 in 54 children as of 2016.
Additional studies on developmental disabilities in children in the U.S. have recognized a similar trend. From 2009 to 2017, the percentage of children with autism increased from 1.1% to 2.5%.
According to the Autism Society, the prevalence of ASD has increased between 6% and 15% each year from 2002 to 2010 and will likely continue to rise at this rate. Currently, over 3.5 million people in the U.S. have an autism diagnosis. Roughly 1% of the global population has ASD.
The Cost of Autism
Currently, a diagnosis of autism comes with a high economic cost. According to Autism Speaks, the cost of caring for people with autism in the U.S. was $268 billion in 2015. This number is expected to increase to $461 billion by 2025.
Adult autism services cost between $175 billion and $196 billion per year, explains the Autism Society, with children’s autism services costing between $61 billion and $66 billion annually.
In the U.S., the cost of autism over one’s lifespan is about $1.4 million for someone without an intellectual disability and $2.4 million for someone with ASD and an intellectual disability.
Studies have found that early ASD diagnosis and intervention can reduce health care costs by up to two-thirds. The earlier a person gets an accurate diagnosis, and the earlier targeted therapy begins, the better the long-term results.
Autism therapies, such as applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy and occupational therapy, build the skills necessary for autistic individuals to thrive and live independently.
The Outlook for Autism in 2020
While autistic individuals face difficulties that make various aspects of life more challenging, greater knowledge about the disorder has paved the way to better therapies. Autism research has allowed for more effective diagnostic processes as well as enhanced treatments and a better understanding of necessary accommodations for those with the disorder.
Effective interventions, therapies, and health care services greatly improve quality of life for those autism. Thanks to these advancements in our approach to autism treatment in 2020, there are more opportunities for autistic individuals than ever before.
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