Rising Autism Rates, Specifically in Minorities and Socially Disadvantaged Children

Summary: In the UK, one in 57 children is on the autism spectrum. The number is significantly higher than previously reported. Children from minority backgrounds were up to 38% more likely to be diagnosed with autism. Children with ASD were more likely to also experience social disadvantages.

Source: University of Cambridge

Around one in 57 (1.76%) children in the UK is on the autistic spectrum, significantly higher than previously reported, according to a study of more than 7 million children carried out by researchers from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Psychiatry in collaboration with researchers from Newcastle University and Maastricht University.

Black and Chinese pupils were 26% and 38% more likely to be autistic respectively and autistic children were much more likely to face significant social disadvantage. The results are published today in JAMA Pediatrics.

The team drew on data from the School Census from the National Pupil Database, collected by the Department for Education from individuals aged 2-21 years old in state-funded schools in England. Of more than 7 million pupils studied, 119,821 pupils had a diagnosis of autism in their record in the English state educational system, of whom 21,660 also had learning difficulties (18.1%). Boys showed a prevalence of autism of 2.8% and girls showed a prevalence of 0.65%, with a boy-to-girl ratio of 4.3:1.

Prevalence was highest in pupils of black ethnicity (2.1%) and lowest in Roma/Irish Travellers (0.85%), with these estimates being the first to be published for these populations. Pupils with a record of autism in schools were 60% more likely to also be socially disadvantaged, and 36% less likely to speak English. The findings reveal significant differences in autism prevalence, as recorded in formal school systems, across ethnic groups and geographical location.

The lead researcher of the study, 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.”

Previous estimates of the prevalence of autism in the UK by the same research group in Cambridge, and based on a school-based survey, suggested that one in 64 children (1.57%) were autistic.

The new study, based on school records that usually underestimate the actual proportion of children who meet diagnostic criteria, shows a considerable increase in the autism prevalence in England. The researchers say the increase is likely to be because autism has become better recognised by both parents and schools in recent years.

Professor Carol Brayne, Co-chair of Cambridge Public Health and Professor of Public Health Medicine, said: “This study shows how we can draw on large datasets in a way that is rigorous and valuable for our understanding of autism.”

This shows a little boy and girl walking down a dusty road
Black and Chinese pupils were 26% and 38% more likely to be autistic respectively and autistic children were much more likely to face significant social disadvantage. Image is in the public domain

Professor Fiona Matthews from Newcastle University added: “This 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.”

Funding: This research was made possible by a generous donation for a Global Public Health Leadership programme by Dennis and Mireille Gillings Fellowship awarded to Dr Andres Roman-Urrestarazu. This study was also supported by the Autism Research Trust, the Wellcome Trust, the Innovative Medicines Initiative 2 Joint Undertaking (JU), the NIHR Cambridge Biomedical Research Centre and the NIHR Collaboration for Leadership in Applied Health Research and Care East of England at Cambridgeshire and Peterborough NHS Foundation Trust.

About this autism research news

Source: University of Cambridge
Contact: Craig Brierley – University of Cambridge
Image: The image is in the public domain

Original Research: Open access.
Association of Race/Ethnicity and Social Disadvantage With Autism Prevalence in 7 Million School Children in England” by Roman-Urrestarazu, R et al. JAMA Pediatrics


Association of Race/Ethnicity and Social Disadvantage With Autism Prevalence in 7 Million School Children in England


The global prevalence of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has been reported to be between 1% and 2% of the population, with little research in Black, Asian, and other racial/ethnic minority groups. Accurate estimates of ASD prevalence are vital to planning diagnostic, educational, health, and social care services and may detect possible access barriers to diagnostic pathways and services and inequalities based on social determinants of health.


To evaluate whether socioeconomic disadvantage is associated with ASD prevalence and the likelihood of accessing ASD services in racial/ethnic minority and disadvantaged groups in England.

Design, Setting, and Participants  

This case-control prevalence cohort study used the Spring School Census 2017 from the Pupil Level Annual Schools Census of the National Pupil Database, which is a total population sample that includes all English children, adolescents, and young adults aged 2 to 21 years in state-funded education. Data were collected on January 17, 2017, and analyzed from August 2, 2018, to January 28, 2020.


Age and sex were treated as a priori confounders while assessing correlates of ASD status according to (1) race/ethnicity, (2) social disadvantage, (3) first language spoken, (4) Education, Health and Care Plan or ASD Special Educational Needs and Disability support status, and (5) mediation analysis to assess how social disadvantage and language might affect ASD status.

Main Outcomes and Measures  

Sex- and age-standardized ASD prevalence by race/ethnicity and 326 English local authority districts in pupils aged 5 to 19 years.


The final population sample consisted of 7 047 238 pupils (50.99% male; mean [SD] age, 10.18 [3.47] years) and included 119 821 pupils with ASD, of whom 21 660 also had learning difficulties (18.08%). The standardized prevalence of ASD was 1.76% (95% CI, 1.75%-1.77%), with male pupils showing a prevalence of 2.81% (95% CI, 2.79%-2.83%) and female pupils a prevalence of 0.65% (95% CI, 0.64%-0.66%), for a male-to-female ratio (MFR) of 4.32:1. Standardized prevalence was highest in Black pupils (2.11% [95% CI, 2.06%-2.16%]; MFR, 4.68:1) and lowest in Roma/Irish Travelers (0.85% [95% CI, 0.67%-1.03%]; MFR, 2.84:1). Pupils with ASD were more likely to face social disadvantage (adjusted prevalence ratio, 1.61; 95% CI, 1.59-1.63) and to speak English as an additional language (adjusted prevalence ratio, 0.64; 95% CI, 0.63-0.65). The effect of race/ethnicity on ASD status was mediated mostly through social disadvantage, with Black pupils having the largest effect (standardized mediation coefficient, 0.018; P < .001) and 12.41% of indirect effects through this way.

Conclusions and Relevance  

These findings suggest that significant differences in ASD prevalence exist across racial/ethnic groups and geographic areas and local authority districts, indicating possible differential phenotypic prevalence or differences in detection or referral for racial/ethnic minority groups.

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