Socioeconomic Inequality and the Prevalence of Autism

(Photo by Pink Sherbet Photography/Flickr)

A recent study done by the University of Wisconsin- Madison titled, “Socioeconomic Inequality in the Prevalence of Autism Spectrum Disorder: Evidence from a U.S. Cross-Sectional Study” draws a correlation between Socioeconomic Status (SES) and autism prevalence. It has been determined that population indicators of SES, such as household income, parental education and occupation are all strongly correlated with the health and development of children[1].

For many chronic childhood disorders and for developmental disabilities, the association with SES often is found to be such that population prevalence decreases with increasing levels of wealth. The study was cross-sectional and implemented with data from the Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network, a multiple source surveillance system that incorporates data from educational and health care sources to determine the number of 8-year-old children with ASD among defined populations[2]. The results showed that as SES increased, so did prevalence.

What is the explanation for this? Surely it cannot be solely concluded that wealthy parents are more likely to have a child with autism. The research team draws the conclusion that documentation of this pattern, as well as exceptions to it, might provide clues to causal mechanisms underlying specific disorders or point to disparities in access to services, including early access to services that can stem the progression of mild conditions[2]. So, this may be more associated with access, resources and education. This would also imply that the current estimate of ASD prevalence might be significantly under-counted, with children of low and medium SES being under-identified and under-served in comparison to those with high SES. As autism continues to affect communities all over the world, it becomes increasingly important that we educate and spread awareness, particularly in communities were resources and health care may not  be as accessible.


[1] Susser MW, Hopper K, Watson W (1985) Sociology in medicine, third edition. New York: Oxford University Press. 603 p.

[2] Durkin MS, Maenner MJ, Meaney FJ, Levy SE, DiGuiseppi C, et al. (2010) Socioeconomic Inequality in the Prevalence of Autism Spectrum Disorder: Evidence from a U.S. Cross-Sectional Study. PLoS ONE 5(7): e11551. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0011551

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