CHICAGO/SEOUL - One out of every 38 children in South Korea may have autism, a surprisingly high number based on a new research approach that suggests autism is a global problem that is significantly underdiagnosed, researchers said on Monday.
The estimate, which translates into 2.64 percent of children, is far higher than the estimated 1 percent rate seen in studies in the United States and Europe.
The study is the first to estimate autism in South Korea, and while the study needs to be confirmed, it suggests autism may be more common than previously thought.
"Are we surprised? Yes," said Dr Young-Shin Kim of Yale University, whose study was funded by the advocacy group Autism Speaks and published in the American Journal of Psychiatry.
Kim's team used a painstaking research method that involved screening 55,000 children aged 7 to 12 in the South Korean city of Goyang. The team surveyed parents about their children's behavior, then followed up with evaluations of at risk children to confirm their diagnosis.
This population-based approach was designed to capture cases that might not be detected with methods that use school or medical records to identify autistic children.
"The high prevalence comes from this new population we included in our study - the kids without any previous developmental delays or mental health issues," Kim said.
The autism rate among children from special schools was 0.75 percent, compared with 1.89 percent in regular school classrooms.
Rates of autism have been climbing in the past decade, in part because of changes in how it is diagnosed
Instead of a single diagnosis, autism is a spectrum of diseases ranging from a profound inability to communicate and mental retardation to relatively mild symptoms such as with Asperger's syndrome.