How Common Is Autism, Really?

Autism diagnoses continue to climb, in large part because we're getting better at recognizing the disorder.

young boy with autism stacking blocks

Updated on July 26, 2023.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is an umbrella term for a range of issues that may affect cognitive, social, emotional, and physical development. It has no single cause, although there are multiple known risk factors, and signs typically surface in early childhood. ASD is a lifelong disorder, though intervention can greatly improve a child’s skills—especially if treatment is started early.

In 2000, about 1 in 150 children in the United States had been diagnosed with autism. By 2020, that number rose to 1 in 36, according to a 2023 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Are more kids really developing ASD? Or are healthcare providers (HCPs), parents, and schools more aware of signs than they used to be, leading to more diagnoses? Most importantly, what can we do to help children with ASD or a related disorder? 

Possible biological and environmental factors

Part of the reason for the rise in diagnoses could be that more children have ASD than in years past. Genetic conditions may be contributing to this. Though additional research is needed, scientists have identified hundreds of genes that can raise risk, and some that can cause the disorder on their own, such as Fragile X syndrome. 

Other biological and environmental risk factors could be affecting incidence, as well. For example:

  • Older parents—particularly older fathers—are more likely to have children with ASD. 
  • Having certain health issues during pregnancy, such as gestational diabetes, may raise risk.
  • Exposure to air pollution or pesticides can increase ASD risk for vulnerable children, according to some research.

One thing that hasn’t contributed to more widespread ASD: vaccines. The theory stems from a 1998 study that purported to link the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine to autism. Not only has that study been retracted and widely discredited, no link has been proven since.

The impact of greater awareness

While it’s possible that a greater number of children today have ASD compared to previous generations, the bulk of increased diagnoses is due to something different: We're getting better at recognizing the condition. Greater ASD awareness, screening, and access to services are contributing directly to more recorded cases.

This may be especially true among children in historically underserved communities. In the 2023 CDC report, researchers found that ASD is being spotted in Black, Hispanic, and non-Hispanic Asian or Pacific Islander children more often than in previous years. In fact, for the first time since the CDC began reporting, the prevalence of ASD was found to be higher for non-white children than white children. 

Girls are being identified with ASD more frequently, too, as experts are better able to discern their early signs, which can differ from those seen in boys. (That said, boys with ASD outnumber girls. About 4 percent of boys are thought to have the disorder, compared to 1 percent of girls.)

Another reason for the surge in reported cases may be changes made to the criteria for autism diagnosis over the years, permitting a wider range of children to be diagnosed. A greater availability of good early interventional services may also make parents more likely to seek care for their children.

The importance of early detection

Children are still being diagnosed for ASD at about 4 years old, on average. But since early intervention is crucial to improving outcomes—and signs of the disorder can surface even before a child turns 1—timely detection and diagnosis are key areas for improvement. 

While many children are regularly screened for autism by their HCPs, if you believe your child may be showing signs of autism, it's important to speak up. Your provider can provide screening at any time and refer additional services. 

Every U.S. state provides for some early intervention, as well. Reach out to your state's Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center Part C coordinator for additional information on opportunities for screening, diagnosis, and therapies.

Article sources open article sources

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD): What is Autism Spectrum Disorder? Last reviewed December 9, 2022.
NIH: National Institute of Mental Health. Autism Spectrum Disorder. Last reviewed February 2023.
National Health Service (UK). What is autism? Page last reviewed September 7, 2022.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD): Data & Statistics on Autism Spectrum Disorder. Last reviewed April 4, 2023.
Maenner MJ, Warren Z, Williams AR, et al. Prevalence and Characteristics of Autism Spectrum Disorder Among Children Aged 8 Years — Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network, 11 Sites, United States, 2020. MMWR Surveill Summ 2023;72(No. SS-2):1–14. 
National Fragile X Foundation. Understanding Fragile X & Autism. Accessed July 20, 2023.
MedlinePlus. Autism spectrum disorder. Last updated October 21, 2021.
Eggertson L. Lancet retracts 12-year-old article linking autism to MMR vaccines. CMAJ. 2010 Mar 9;182(4):E199-200.
Aviel-Shekler K, Hamshawi Y, Sirhan W, et al. Gestational diabetes induces behavioral and brain gene transcription dysregulation in adult offspring. Transl Psychiatry. 2020 Nov 25;10(1):412. 
Cheng-Kuan Lin, et al. Association between exposure to ambient particulate matters and risks of autism spectrum disorder in children: a systematic review and exposure-response meta-analysis. Environmental Research Letters. May 28, 2021. Volume 16, Number 6. 
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD): Spotlight On: Delay Between First Concern to Accessing Services. Page last reviewed August 27, 2019. (AAP). 3 Early Signs of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Last updated March 21, 2023.

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