NHS - 22nd September 2009
The world's first ever study into the prevalence of autism spectrum disorders among adults shows that one in every hundred adults living in households has the condition – broadly the same rate as that cited for children.
While studies have been carried out into the prevalence of autism spectrum disorders among children, the report from The NHS Information Centre is the first attempt to find and count adults and older people in the community with an autism spectrum disorder, including asperger syndrome.
Up until now, little was known about how autism affected people over the course of a lifetime. For example, autism rates could have been lower among older age groups because people had gradually recovered from the condition or died prematurely.
However, the study suggests that this is not the case and that prevalence of autism spectrum disorder remains broadly level across all age bands.
The survey fails to support suggestions of a link between the mumps, measles and rubella (MMR) vaccine and the condition. This is because, if MMR were a factor in the development of the condition, prevalence would be expected to be higher among children and younger adult age bands because MMR was introduced in 1990/91 and only those currently aged in their early twenties or younger have been routinely offered it.
Autism spectrum disorders are developmental disorders characterised by impaired social interaction and communications, severely restricted interests and repetitive behaviours.
The study of its prevalence among adults was a specific objective of the Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey 2007 which was commissioned by The NHS Information Centre, funded by the Department of Health and carried out by the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen) in collaboration with the University of Leicester.
While the main survey was published in January, the research into autism prevalence required additional work and was therefore published separately.
Other key findings showed:
* While 1.0 per cent of the adult population had an autism spectrum disorder, the rate for men was higher (1.8 per cent) than for women (0.2 per cent). This was in line with studies among child populations which show higher rates amongst boys.
* People who were single were more likely to be assessed with an autism spectrum disorder than other marital statuses.
* Among men, prevalence of an autism spectrum disorder was lower among those with a degree level qualification than among those with no qualifications.
* Men renting their home from a social landlord were more likely than those living in other types of housing to have an autism spectrum disorder.
* Adults with an autism spectrum disorder were no more likely to be using services for those with mental or emotional problems than the rest of the adult general population.
Chief executive of The NHS Information Centre Tim Straughan said: “This landmark report is the first major study into the prevalence of autism spectrum disorders among adults to be carried out anywhere in the world.
“While the sample size was small and any conclusions need to be tempered with caution, the report suggests that, despite popular perceptions, rates of autism are not increasing, with prevalence among adults in line with that among children. It also suggests that, among adults, rates of autism remain broadly constant across age groups.
“The findings do not support suggestions of a link between the MMR vaccine and the development of this condition.
“The recent report by the National Audit Office on supporting people with autism through adulthood suggests very little recognition and service provision by local authorities or the NHS for adults with autism spectrum disorder.
“Within the health and social care sectors, professionals will be interested to see that despite their high levels of need, people with autism spectrum conditions in this survey are not accessing support services for mental or emotional problems in any greater numbers than the general population. This does beg some questions about whether services, as currently configured, are meeting the needs of this group of people.”