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Childhood autism spectrum disorder in the Barwon region: A community based study


 Associate Professor PH Hewson, Barwon Child Health Unit, 106 McKilop St, Geelong, VIC 3220, Australia. Fax: +61 3 5224 2850; email:


Objective:  To establish a community database for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to determine prevalence and identify subgroups based on key intellectual, clinical and family parameters.

Methods:  Data were collected for children previously diagnosed with an ASD in the Barwon region using parental interview and review of the child's paediatric and psychological records. Preschool diagnoses were typically made by specialist psychologists and school-age diagnoses made by a multidisciplinary team.

Results:  One hundred and seventy-seven children in the Barwon region were identified as having ASD (82% response rate). The prevalence of ASD was one per 255 children aged two to 17 years. The prevalence increased 10 fold over a 16-year period and this increase was relatively even across all levels of child intellectual functioning. Forty-two percent of children were intellectually disabled (IQ < 70) and performance IQ was significantly higher than verbal IQ but typical block design-comprehension subtest patterns were not common. Nine sibling pair families were identified, 24% were labelled as having attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), 6% had epilepsy, and 18.3% were macrocephalic where data were available. Family difficulty was associated with the degree of obsessions/rituals, frequency and intensity of anger/aggression, and ADHD but overall was not associated with the child's intellectual status.

Conclusions:  The relatively rapid increase in prevalence is consistent with overseas studies and suggests significant changes in diagnostic criteria, increasing community awareness and the need for support at all levels of intellectual functioning. Increased occurrence in siblings and relatives gives further evidence for a genetic cause.