Prevalence and Inequality
Autism rates tripled among children in the New York and New Jersey metropolitan area from 2000 to 2016, according to a study published Thursday in the journal Pediatrics.
The authors, a team from Rutgers University, calculated the trend by analyzing Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates of the number of children who've been identified as having autism spectrum disorder by age 8.
Although there is no medical test for autism, the CDC has established a network of 17 sites across the country that estimate autism rates based on a combination of formal medical diagnoses and records from schools and health care providers.
Nationally, the rise in autism rates has been similar to the trend in New York and New Jersey, according to a 2021 CDC report. One in 54 children had been diagnosed with autism by age 8 in 2016, compared to 1 in 150 in 2000.
Advances in diagnostic capabilities and greater understanding and awareness of autism spectrum disorder seem to be largely driving the increase, the Rutgers researchers said. But there’s probably more to the story: Genetic factors, and perhaps some environmental ones, too, might also be contributing to the trend.
Precisely what those other factors are is still unknown, but researchers are at least clear on one fact: Autism has nothing to do with vaccines.
"We know for sure, for so many years now, that vaccines don’t cause autism," said Santhosh Girirajan, an associate professor at Pennsylvania State University who studies the genetic underpinnings of neurodevelopmental disorders and wasn't involved in the new study.
“One of the assumptions about ASD is that it occurs alongside intellectual disabilities,” said Josephine Shenouda, an adjunct professor at the Rutgers School of Public Health and lead author of the study published in the journal Pediatrics. “This claim was supported by older studies suggesting that up to 75 percent of children with autism also have intellectual disability.”
“What our paper shows is that this assumption is not true,” Shenouda said. “In fact, in this study, two-in-three children with autism had no intellectual disability whatsoever.”
Using biannual data from the New Jersey Autism Study, researchers identified 4,661 8-year-olds with ASD in four New Jersey counties (Essex, Hudson, Ocean and Union) during the study period. Of these, 1,505 (32.3 percent) had an intellectual disability; 2,764 (59.3 percent) did not.
Subsequent analysis found that rates of ASD co-occurring with intellectual disability increased two-fold between 2000 and 2016 – from 2.9 per 1,000 to 7.3 per 1,000. Rates of ASD with no intellectual disability jumped five-fold, from 3.8 per 1,000 to 18.9 per 1,000.
Shenouda said there may be explanations for the observed increases, though more research is needed to specify the precise causes.
“Better awareness of and testing for ASD does play a role,” said Walter Zahorodny, associate professor at the Rutgers New Jersey Medical School and senior author on the study. “But the fact that we saw a 500 percent increase in autism among kids without any intellectual disabilities – children we know are falling through the cracks – suggests that something else is also driving the surge.”
ASD prevalence has been shown to be associated with race and socioeconomic status. The Rutgers study identified that Black children with ASD and no intellectual disabilities were 30 percent less likely to be identified compared with white children, while kids living in affluent areas were 80 percent more likely to be identified with ASD and no intellectual disabilities compared with children in underserved areas.