Number of CA Students with Autism Rises Sixfold Since 2002

April is Autism Awareness Month, and Kidsdata has released the latest data on California’s special education enrollment for students with autism. Between 2002 and 2015, the number of public school students in California enrolled in special education due to autism has risen sixfold, from 13,276 to 90,794 students. In 2002, autism was the 6th most common disability among special education students, but by 2015, it had risen to the third most common disability.

Nationwide, the identified prevalence of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has more than doubled from one in 150 school-aged children in 2000 to one in 68 in 2012, according to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Has the prevalence of autism actually risen or does the upward trend reflect broadened diagnostic criteria and increased awareness of the disorder? Some researchers point to “diagnostic substitution,” meaning that a child diagnosed with autism today may have been dubbed mentally retarded in years past. It wasn’t until 1992 when the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) included autism as a special education reporting category. And while the causes of autism are largely a mystery, most researchers agree that both genetics and environmental factors, such as exposure to pesticides during pregnancy, may play a role.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is stressing the importance of early identification through its “Learn the Signs. Act Early” program. In 2012, only 43 percent of children identified with ASD received developmental evaluations by the age of three. Black and Latino children tend to receive diagnoses at even older ages. By prioritizing early identification, children with ASD can access special services and support during the crucial stages of early childhood development.

Related Data:


Helpful Links

California Dept. of Education: Special Education

Disability Rights California

Family Voices

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)

Lucile Packard Foundation for Children’s Health

National Center for Learning Disabilities

Students with Disabilities and California’s Special Education Program, 2009, Public Policy Institute of California

Kidsdata Tip

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