The Prevalence and Characteristics of Children With Profound Autism, 15 Sites, United States, 2000-2016

Michelle Hughes, Kelly Shaw, Monica DiRienzo, Maureen Durkin, Amy N Esler PhD, Jennifer A Hall-Lande, Lisa Wiggins, Walter Zahorodny, Alison Singer, Matthew Maenner


Objectives: Autism spectrum disorder (autism) is a heterogeneous condition that poses challenges in describing the needs of individuals with autism and making prognoses about future outcomes. We applied a newly proposed definition of profound autism to surveillance data to estimate the percentage of children with autism who have profound autism and describe their sociodemographic and clinical characteristics.

Methods: We analyzed population-based surveillance data from the Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network for 20 135 children aged 8 years with autism during 2000-2016. Children were classified as having profound autism if they were nonverbal, were minimally verbal, or had an intelligence quotient <50.

Results: The percentage of 8-year-old children with profound autism among those with autism was 26.7%. Compared with children with non–profound autism, children with profound autism were more likely to be female, from racial and ethnic minority groups, of low socioeconomic status, born preterm or with low birth weight; have self-injurious behaviors; have seizure disorders; and have lower adaptive scores. In 2016, the prevalence of profound autism was 4.6 per 1000 8-year-olds. The prevalence ratio (PR) of profound autism was higher among non-Hispanic Asian/Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander (PR = 1.55; 95 CI, 1.38-1.73), non-Hispanic Black (PR = 1.76; 95% CI, 1.67-1.86), and Hispanic (PR = 1.50; 95% CI, 0.88-1.26) children than among non-Hispanic White children.

Conclusions: As the population of children with autism continues to change, describing and quantifying the population with profound autism is important for planning. Policies and programs could consider the needs of people with profound autism across the life span to ensure their needs are met.

Suggested Citation

Hughes, M. M., Shaw, K. A., DiRienzo, M., Durkin, M. S., Esler, A., Hall-Lande, J., Wiggins, L., Zahorodny, W., Singer, A., & Maenner, M. J. (2023). The Prevalence and Characteristics of Children With Profound Autism, 15 Sites, United States, 2000-2016. Public Health Reports, 003335492311635.


Peer-Reviewed Article 
SAGE Publications, Inc.


  • Specific life stage
    • Children
  • Specific disability
    • Autism spectrum disorder (ASD)