crowded homesResearchers from Sweden have found, in the largest study of its kind, that low socioeconomic status is linked to higher rates of autism. The research team evaluated the economic conditions of children in Sweden and found that children in “deprived” neighborhoods have the highest rates of autism. Although the finding contradicts statistics from the United States, Sweden offers comprehensive health care services to its citizens in a way that the United States does not, which likely accounts for the discrepancy.

The study used a sample of 643,456 children aged two to 11 years who lived in Sweden from 2000 to 2010. Of the cohort, 1,699 children had been diagnosed with childhood autism, a subtype of autism in which symptoms are apparent before the age of three. The researchers then evaluated neighborhoods to determine their socioeconomic status. They determined whether a neighborhood had a low, moderate, or high level of deprivation based on the average levels of income and education, welfare assistance, and unemployment rates.

The most deprived neighborhoods had the highest rates of new autism cases: 3.6 per 1,000 people over the ten-year interval, compared with 2.5 per 1,000 and 2.2 per 1,000 in moderate and affluent neighborhoods, respectively. Moreover, children in deprived neighborhoods were 59 percent more likely to be diagnosed with autism. When controlling for family characteristics like age, sex, income, and education, the rate for the same neighborhoods fell to 28 percent.

The researchers conclude that a low socioeconomic status is correlated with an increased risk for autism. This is in contrast to patterns observed in the United States, where children from more affluent families are more likely to be diagnosed with autism. However, this is most likely attributed to the fact that people in the United States are individually responsible for accessing psychiatrists and other specialists, whereas Sweden makes universal health care available to people at all income levels.

This research is published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research.

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