A Closer Look at the Growth in Autism Diagnoses

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.

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Posted by Andy Krackov

This entry was posted on Thursday, February 3rd, 2011 at 10:48 am. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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  1. kidsdata.org says:

    One reader’s remarks:

    Emily Alpert’s article in the Voice of San Diego (article: http://www.voiceofsandiego.org/education/schooled/article_070cc44c-42c6-11e0-9b87-001cc4c03286.html) discussed the drop in identification of students with specific learning disabilities. If you are exploring for reasons why, you might want to examine the impact of the management/oversight structure that SDUSD has had in recent years.

    As a result of corrective actions SDUSD reorganized special education in 1997 and again in 2002. The impact of the changes in 1997 was primarily coming into compliance with laws related to students with disabilities. The changes made in 2002 and subsequent years set up a whole new infrastructure that focused on training of principals and teachers at school sites and providing well trained consultation for sights via a centrally administered special education department. This was a massive restructuring that took years to be totally fruitful, but the current drop in students identified and the increase in test scores of special education students in recent years has been representative of these changes.

    Unfortunately, the data tracking to demonstrate the impact of changes also had to evolve, and the data tracking lagged behind the changes. I say unfortunately because (during the multitude of superintendent changes at SDUSD) the structure of special education has been “reorganized” and weakened, ostensibly because the data was not yet showing the significance of the changes. Now the data does, but the central management structure of special education that set that system up and ran it has been scattered across the county. Roxie Jackson, the former Executive Director, now oversees Student Services, including Special Education, for National City School District. Mary Sue Glynn, the former Director of Special Ed, now oversees special education for Grossmont School District. Caroline Nunes, also Director of Special Ed, now is Director of Special Education for San Diego County Schools. Many other managers have taken retirement, or have moved out of special education.

    I have been a volunteer advocate for special education students throughout all of this process, and can tell you that the changes that strengthened special education services are being gradually eliminated due to changes in superintendents, managers, and budget cuts. The impact of these changes has been somewhat ameliorated at those sites who made major changes, had good administrators, and maintained a trained staff that did not rely so heavily on central management for guidance and compliance. However, this is probably a house of cards in terms of the District as a whole, so what this picture looks like in a few years is anyone’s guess.

    I will say that I believe I speak with some expertise in this area. I am past president (1997—2004) of the Learning Disabilities of San Diego, former Chair of San Diego Unified’s Community Advisory Committee, and was the complainant or co-complainant of a series of complaints about SDUSD to CA Dept. of Education (CCE) and US Dept of Education Office of Civil Rights (OCR) that were filed in 1996, 1998, 2000, and 2002. The complaints primarily concerned SDUSD failing to address the educational needs and rights for students, particularly students with learning disabilities. These complaints were resolved with multiple corrective actions ordered by CDE and OCR, culminating in a mediation agreement signed in June 2002. These were the complaints responsible for forcing the re-organizations referred to above.

  2. parent says:

    I have a son with ASD who has been enrolled in the public school system since 2005, five years. Every year it is a battle to make sure that he gets the services that we feel he should have to be a success. This year he is included in the 3rd grade general ed class with additional services. He has a teacher that is ready to retire in a few years and is completely unwilling to modify the way she teaches her class to accomodate my son. She won’t say or do things obvious but in our opinion she is setting him up for failure with the intent to get him out of her classroom. Now we are looking at an expensive private school so that he can be in a more accepting and positive environment. We have tried to work with the district for months to no end. I wonder how many other parents feel the same way or have already moved their child to a more positive educational experience?

  3. fremont school says:

    I am a special day class teacher-LH. There are less students with learning disabilities in my class because with RTI more students are being left in the regular classroom which impact that classroom. More and more low cognitive ability students are found in LH classes.

  4. Individual says:

    Regarding the decline in Learning Disabilities identification, I think it relates to the “Response to Intervention” model that the students must participate in BEFORE they can be tested for learning disabilities and special education.

  5. […] data do not explain these shifts in disability diagnoses. The foundation has asked the public to provide perspective on the trends, which track with special education figures nationwide. Autism is the fastest-growing student […]

  6. autismstreet.org says:


    Absolute enrollment numbers can be misleading, as enrollment is necessarily influenced by changes in resident population, however the trends are similar. To really see what’s going on in California, use the embedded Google animation provided:
    1. Make sure the plot type is set to Linear in the upper left.
    2. Click the third tab in the upper right for a line graph.
    3. Set ‘Color’ to “Unique colors”.
    4. Select Autism and Learning Disability.

    A graph of the same disabilities as a percentage of the school age-relevant resident population of California (IDEA and U.S. Census estimates source data) during the past 10 years shows a nearly identical trend – fairly obvious likely diagnostic substitution.

    @Creekside Elementary
    By an implied potential role of something in our food, water, air, and our environment in general, we should look more closely, because if something there is responsible for an increase in kids wearing a special education label of “autism”, it’s also likely responsible for a huge decrease in learning disabilities in California. If you really believe in the vaccine etiology, despite a complete lack of any real supporting science, what’s causing the more than offsetting decrease in learning disabilities? Vaccines?

  7. […] data do not explain these shifts in disability diagnoses. The foundation has asked the public to provide perspective on the trends, which track with special education figures nationwide. Autism is the fastest-growing student […]

  8. Creekside Elementary School says:

    I am a public school educator and a parent of two children the autism spectrum. As an educator, I have heard(in a previous district where I worked) that we should reduce the number of children we identify with leading disabilities because they cost too much to educate. As a parent, I have often felt that my children have not received services that they should have qualified for, but that their school disrict was reluctant to invest the money in them.
    As our world continues to get more and more polluted, those people who are already genetically predisposed to autism are more likely to manifest autism-like tendencies. Let’s take a look at what’s in our food, water, air, and our environment in general. The medical community poo-poohed the possibility of vaccines, but I do think that one day we will know definitively that vaccines do trigger autism in those with hereditary tendencies.

  9. […] data do not explain these shifts in disability diagnoses. The foundation has asked the public to provide perspective on the trends, which track with special education figures nationwide. Autism is the fastest-growing student […]

  10. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by stevesilberman, Nicole A. Gaddis, vaddie najman, Emily Willingham, Somite and others. Somite said: RT @stevesilberman: As #autism numbers rise in CA, diagnoses of "learning disability" fall. http://bit.ly/dKbZ1J […]

  11. Self says:

    I wonder if there is more overall funding for the autism diagnosis? These diagnoses come down to a judgement call sometimes and available funding could tip the scale (not just in the school, but insurance coverage as well).

    You should also plot total special needs population and also plot the data as % of the total special needs population rather than absolute numbers.