Prevalence of autism in mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan: a systematic review and meta-analysis.


BACKGROUND: The prevalence of autism spectrum conditions (ASC) is 1% in developed countries, but little data are available from mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. This study synthesizes evidence relating to the prevalence of ASC in these areas and assesses the effects of research methodology on prevalence estimates. METHODS: Systematic literature searches were conducted in PubMed, Web of Knowledge, China Web of Knowledge and Weipu databases, as well as relevant papers published from 1987 to 2011, reporting prevalence estimates of ASC or childhood autism in mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Summary estimates of prevalence were calculated with a random effects model. The effects of research methodology on the prevalence estimates were assessed using a meta-regression model. RESULTS: There were 25 studies eligible for review, 18 of which were suitable for inclusion in a meta-analysis. Pooled prevalence of childhood autism was 11.8 per 10,000 individuals (95% confidence interval (CI): 8.2, 15.3) in mainland China. Pooled prevalence of ASC was 26.6 per 10,000 (95% CI: 18.5, 34.6) in three areas. Substantial heterogeneity was identified between studies (I2>75%). The prevalence estimate of childhood autism was most strongly associated with the choice of screening instrument. After adjustment for age group, the odds ratio for prevalence estimates when using the Autism Behavior Checklist (ABC) as the screening instrument compared with those using the Clancy Autism Behavior Scale (CABS) was 0.29 (95% CI: 0.12, 0.69), and 1.79 (95% CI: 0.70, 4.55; P= 0.20) when using the Checklist for Autism in Toddlers (CHAT) compared to the CABS. CONCLUSIONS: The available studies investigating the prevalence of ASC in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan have focused mainly on childhood autism rather than the whole spectrum. The prevalence estimates are lower than estimates from developed countries. Studies using more recently developed screening instruments reported higher prevalence than older ones. However, available studies have methodological weaknesses and therefore these results lack comparability with those from developed countries. Our findings indicate a potential under-diagnosis and under-detection of ASC in mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, and a need to adopt more advanced methods for research of ASC in these areas.