Psychological Medicine

Original Articles

The epidemiology and global burden of autism spectrum disorders

A. J. Baxtera1a2 c1, T. S. Brughaa3, H. E. Erskinea1a2, R. W. Scheurera2, T. Vosa1a4 and J. G. Scotta2a5a6

a1 School of Population Health, University of Queensland, Herston, Australia

a2 Queensland Centre for Mental Health Research, Wacol, Australia

a3 Department of Health Sciences, University of Leicester, Leicester General Hospital, UK

a4 Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, University of Washington, Seattle, WA, USA

a5 University of Queensland Centre for Clinical Research, Herston, Australia

a6 Royal Brisbane and Women's Hospital, Herston, Australia


Background Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are persistent disabling neurodevelopmental disorders clinically evident from early childhood. For the first time, the burden of ASDs has been estimated for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2010 (GBD 2010). The aims of this study were to develop global and regional prevalence models and estimate the global burden of disease of ASDs.

Method A systematic review was conducted for epidemiological data (prevalence, incidence, remission and mortality risk) of autistic disorder and other ASDs. Data were pooled using a Bayesian meta-regression approach while adjusting for between-study variance to derive prevalence models. Burden was calculated in terms of years lived with disability (YLDs) and disability-adjusted life-years (DALYs), which are reported here by world region for 1990 and 2010.

Results In 2010 there were an estimated 52 million cases of ASDs, equating to a prevalence of 7.6 per 1000 or one in 132 persons. After accounting for methodological variations, there was no clear evidence of a change in prevalence for autistic disorder or other ASDs between 1990 and 2010. Worldwide, there was little regional variation in the prevalence of ASDs. Globally, autistic disorders accounted for more than 58 DALYs per 100 000 population and other ASDs accounted for 53 DALYs per 100 000.

Conclusions ASDs account for substantial health loss across the lifespan. Understanding the burden of ASDs is essential for effective policy making. An accurate epidemiological description of ASDs is needed to inform public health policy and to plan for education, housing and financial support services.

(Received December 11 2013)

(Revised June 17 2014)

(Accepted June 20 2014)

(Online publication August 01 2014)

Key words

  • Asperger's disorder;
  • autism;
  • autistic spectrum disorders;
  • burden of disease;
  • epidemiological study;
  • epidemiology;
  • global health;
  • mental disorders;
  • prevalence;
  • public health


c1 Address for correspondence: A. J. Baxter, M.P.H., Queensland Centre for Mental Health Research, University of Queensland, Brisbane, QLD 4074, Australia. (Email: