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Study Suggests Autism More Prevalent Than Previously Thought

Autism and related conditions might be far more widespread than previously thought.

As the Los Angeles Times reports, a groundbreaking study of South Korean children found that 2.6 percent — one out of every 38 kids — suffer from from autism spectrum disorders, which can range from severe autism to more mild disorders such as Asberger’s syndrome. In contrast, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had previously pegged the level as less than 1 percent, or one in every 110 children.

The study — published in the American Journal of Psychiatry and led by Dr. Young-Shin Kim, a child psychiatrist and epidemiologist at the Yale Child Study Center — surprised many experts. It is considered the most comprehensive look at autism, based on research covering 55,000 schoolchildren ages 7 to 12.

While previous research typically focused only on kids already thought likely to be suffering from an autism spectrum disorder, most of the cases in the new study turned up among children in regular school classrooms.

Experts said that the findings, while they didn’t address the potential causes of autism, could reflect a severe underestimate of its prevalence in the U.S. and elsewhere. “This study clearly confirms that autism is a significant, global, public health concern that transcends cultural, ethnic and geographic boundaries. We do need to do this type of study in the U.S.,” said Geraldine Dawson, chief scientific officer of the advocacy group Autism Speaks, which helped fund the study, and a researcher at the University of North Carolina.

A vast gap separates people who suffer milder autism spectrum symptoms, and who often go undiagnosed, from those who are severely affected. Those in the group with milder symptoms, the Times said, tended to have normal intelligence but poor social skills.

The prevalence of autism spectrum students in regular educational settings raised questions about whether many South Koreans parents do not seek treatment for their children for the condition, partly due to cultural stigmas.

“Are they less likely to come forward because of stigma associated with this?” asked Laura Schreibman, a psychology professor at the University of California, San Diego who has researched autism. “How much can we generalize this finding to the worldwide population?”

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