Autism just as common in adults, so MMR jab is off the hook

Autism affects 1% of the adult population, the same rate as for children, says a large study, which undermines claims that the MMR vaccine is to blame
Claims that the MMR vaccine caused autism have never fully been shaken off
Claims that the MMR vaccine caused autism have never fully been shaken off. Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA

Autism is as common among adults as it is in children, according to the world's first big study of its prevalence, undermining the theories of those who claim the MMR jab is responsible for the rising toll in recent years.

The survey, carried out by the National Centre for Social Research in collaboration with the University of Leicester, shows that one in 100 adults in England have an autism spectrum disorder, which can range from a serious disability to difficulties in socialising, and includes some people with extraordinary artistic talents.

At 1%, the adult prevalence is the same as that in children. The measles, mumps and rubella combined vaccination was introduced in 1990-91. If the theory first put forward by Dr Andrew Wakefield in 1998 of a link between MMR and autism were correct, there should be a higher incidence of the disorder in children and young people in their early 20s than in older adults, who were never given the jab.

The study was published today by the NHS Information Centre, which commissioned the research as part of the Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey in 2007, funded by the Department of Health. Although Wakefield's theory has been widely discounted by scientists, there remains some public anxiety. MMR vaccination rates have never fully recovered from the scare.

The main results, looking at the prevalence of a wide range of psychiatric problems in nearly 7,500 adults chosen randomly from the community, were published in January.

The survey of autism spectrum disorder found that among adults, as among children, more men than women are affected. Overall, the rate was 1%, but among men it rose to 1.8% and among women it dropped to 0.2%.

It found that people with some form of autism were more likely to be found among people who are single and who have low educational attainment. People living in rented social housing were more likely to have the disorder – 8% of men in such accommodation had an autism spectrum disorder.

Perhaps most worryingly, there was no evidence that people with autism were any more likely to get treatment for emotional or mental-health problems than those without.

"This landmark report is the first major study into the prevalence of autism spectrum disorders among adults to be carried out anywhere in the world," said Tim Straughan, chief executive of the NHS Information Centre.

"While the sample size was small and any conclusions need to be tempered with caution, the report suggests that, despite popular perceptions, rates of autism are not increasing, with prevalence among adults in line with that among children. It also suggests that, among adults, rates of autism remain broadly constant across age groups.

"The findings do not support suggestions of a link between the MMR vaccine and the development of this condition.

"The recent report by the National Audit Office on supporting people with autism through adulthood suggests [there is] very little recognition and service provision by local authorities or the NHS for adults with autism spectrum disorder.

"Within the health and social care sectors, professionals will be interested to see that despite their high levels of need, people with autism spectrum conditions in this survey are not accessing support services for mental or emotional problems in any greater numbers than the general population. This does beg some questions about whether services, as currently configured, are meeting the needs of this group of people."