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Acta Paediatr. 2005 Jan;94(1):2-15.

Incidence of autism spectrum disorders: changes over time and their meaning.

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Institute of Psychiatry, Kings College, London, UK.



Several reviews have noted a huge increase in the rate of diagnosed autism spectrum disorders. The main aims of this paper are: 1) to use published empirical findings to consider whether the rise reflects a true increase in incidence, as distinct from the consequences of better ascertainment and a broadening of the diagnostic concept; and 2) to consider how epidemiological data may be used to test hypotheses about possible causal influences, using MMR and thimerosal as examples.


Search of the literature for studies with a large epidemiological base population, systematic standardized screening, a focus on an age group for which diagnostic assessments are reliable and valid, and diagnosis by trained professionals using high-quality research assessments. Also, search of a broader literature to consider the evidence from all epidemiological studies with respect to the hypothesized causal effect of MMR and thimerosal on autism spectrum disorders.


The true incidence of autism spectrum disorders is likely to be within the range of 30-60 cases per 10 000, a huge increase over the original estimate 40 years ago of 4 per 10000. The increase is largely a consequence of improved ascertainment and a considerable broadening of the diagnostic concept. However, a true risk due to some, as yet to be identified, environmental risk factor cannot be ruled out. There is no support for the hypothesis for a role of either MMR or thimerosal in causation, but the evidence on the latter is more limited.


Progress in testing environmental risk hypotheses will require the integration of epidemiological and biological studies.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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