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Age of diagnosis for autism: individual and community factors across 10 birth cohorts
  1. Christine Fountain,
  2. Marissa D King,
  3. Peter S Bearman
  1. Paul Lazarsfeld Center for Social Sciences, Columbia University, New York, USA
  1. Correspondence to Dr Peter Bearman, 803 International Affairs Building, Mail Code 3355, Columbia University, New York, NY 10027, USA; psb17{at}


Background The incidence of autism rose dramatically between 1992 and 2001, while the age at which children were first diagnosed declined. During this period the size and composition of the autism caseload has changed, but little is known about whether the factors associated with the timing of diagnosis may also have shifted. Using a multilevel analysis strategy, the individual and community-level factors associated with age of diagnosis were modelled across 10 birth cohorts of California children.

Methods Linked birth and administrative records on 17 185 children with diagnoses of autistic disorder born in California between 1992 and 2001 and enrolled with the California Department of Developmental Services (DDS) were analysed. Information on cases, their parents and their residential location were extracted from birth and DDS records. Zip codes of residence were matched to census data to create community-level measures. Multilevel linear models were estimated for each birth cohort, with individual-level effects for sex, race, parental characteristics, poverty status, birth order and symptom expression. At the community level measures of educational and economic composition, local autism prevalence and the presence of a child psychiatrist were included.

Results Children with highly educated parents are diagnosed earlier, and this effect has strengthened over time. There is a persistent gap in the age of diagnosis between high and low socioeconomic status (SES) children that has shrunk but not disappeared over time.

Conclusion Routine screening for autism in early childhood for all children, particularly those of low SES, is necessary to eliminate disparities in early intervention.

  • Age of diagnosis
  • autistic disorder
  • children
  • multilevel analysis
  • multilevel models
  • social epidemiology
  • socioeconomic

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  • Funding This research was supported by the NIH Director's Pioneer Award program, part of the NIH Roadmap for Medical Research, through grant number 1 DP1 OD003635-01.

  • Competing interests None.

  • Ethics approval This study was conducted with the approval of the Columbia University Institutional Review Board and the California Committee for the Protection of Human Subjects.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.