Autism affects 1% of Irish population, study shows

Majority of children in special schools have ASDs, according to DCU research

Autism affects at least 1 per cent of the Irish population, similar to rates in the US and the UK, a study by researchers in DCU suggests.

Within special schools, the prevalence of autism was recorded as 52 per cent, but a low response rate to the survey may have impacted on the results, the researchers admitted.

The authors of the study at the DCU school of nursing said it sheds new light on the prevalence of what they term autism spectrum disorders (ASDs).

“Although there have been many studies on the epidemiology of ASDs globally, until now, uncertainty has remained about the frequency of ASD occurrence in Ireland.”

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The study began in 2009 and the surveys were carried out in 2010. It was funded with €170,000 from Irish Autism Action.

The researchers describe autism spectrum disorders as a group of neuro-developmental conditions characterised by impairments in social interaction and communication, as well as restricted, repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behaviour. Some autism awareness campaigners contest the term, saying it stigmatises those with autism.

The study was based on questionnaires sent to parents of almost 8,000 primary school children in mainstream and special education in Cork, Waterford and Galway.

Overall, some 69 per cent of those who were invited to participate did so but this fell to just 36 per cent in the special needs schools.

Principal investigator Dr Mary Rose Sweeney said the process of screening and diagnosing autism spectrum disorders was complex, as it required input from multiple social, educational, medical and psychological services.

“Standardising the diagnosis process across all these stakeholders will allow us to better determine prevalence rates across the country and correspondingly deliver more effective policy responses to autism spectrum disorders.”

The researchers recommended continued monitoring of prevalence rates over time in Ireland, a register of all children diagnosed with ASD and economic evaluation of the costs and benefits of ASD intervention.

Autism awareness campaigner Fiona O’Leary, who ran for election in Cork in the general election, criticised the cost of the study and said it was “not relevant” at this stage because it was six years old.

Ms O’Leary, who is on the autism spectrum and has two children with autism, said there were people around the country struggling to obtain services and who were paying privately for teachers.

Autism awareness campaigners will take part in a number of events this weekend to mark the start of World Autism Awareness Month.

In Bandon, Co Cork, Autistic Rights Together invites people to meet at the footbridge on MacSwiney Quay at 2pm for its ‘Walk in Red’ event. Participants are asked to wear something red.

Irish Autism Action’s fourth annual 5km fun run and 10km race will take place in Lough Boora Discovery Park, Offaly Dóchas Cancer Support and Offaly School of Special Education at 11am on Sunday.