A few years ago, we published an issue brief, “Autism Diagnoses on the Rise,” that explored the steep climb in autism diagnoses across California. So what does the trend look like these days? About the same, it turns out. Newly released data from the California Department of Education show that the growth in special education students diagnosed with autism continues unabated, from roughly 17,500 California public school students in 2002 to nearly 60,000 in 2010.
As you dig deeper, however, some other trends emerge. First, while students with autism comprise a greater share of all special education students in California compared to roughly a decade ago (from about 3% of all special education students in ’02 to about 9% in ’10), numbers are on the rise for another diagnosis, too — “other health impairment.” The California Department of Education defines this as “having limited strength, vitality or alertness, due to chronic or acute health problems, such as a heart condition, tuberculosis, rheumatic fever, nephritis, asthma, sickle cell anemia, hemophilia, epilepsy, lead poisoning, leukemia, or diabetes.” Meanwhile, the percent of special education students diagnosed with a learning disability has dropped considerably, from 52% of all special education students in 2002 to 42% in 2010.
This Google animation, which uses data from kidsdata.org indicators, shows the relative growth/decrease in special education enrollments by the three conditions noted above. First click on the bar graph icon in the top-right, then press play in the bottom left.
We encourage our readers to provide some perspective on these trends. We do know that research shows that federal and state finance reform may be contributing to declining learning disability rates in California (and across the nation). As for autism, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that whether the increases are “attributable to a true increase in the risk for developing ASD [autism spectrum disorders] symptoms or solely to changes in community awareness and identification patterns is not known.” Comments from users like you can help us illuminate what’s going on both locally and statewide, and provide broader perspective on the growth in autism diagnoses.