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Autism Spectrum Disorders Health Center

U.S. in Midst of an Autism Epidemic?

Researchers Try to Find out What's Behind Higher Enrollments in Special Education Classes
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

April 3, 2006 - The flood of kids with autism pouring into special education classes doesn't mean we're in the middle of an autism epidemic, a new study suggests.

Experts hotly debate the issue of whether there really are more autistic kidsmore autistic kids than there used to be. Many parents worry that there may be something out there that's causing autism. Fueling their fears is a huge explosion in the number of autism cases pouring into state-funded programs.

This explosion in the need for special autism education might be because there's more autism than ever before. Or it might be because we're getting better at diagnosing autism -- and because treatment is getting better, drawing more kids into special-education classes at earlier ages.

Advocates of the autism-epidemic theory point to a recent California study. Those researchers found little evidence that changes in autism diagnosis affected how many kids have autism. And while they defend their findings, the study has come under fire from other autism experts.

Changing Standards

Now a new report in the April issue of Pediatrics looks at data from across the U.S. It shows that what's true for California and a handful of other states isn't true for the nation as a whole. The increase in autism is offset by a decrease in mental retardation and learning disabilities, finds University of Wisconsin, Madison, researcher Paul T. Shattuck, PhD.

"Many of the children now being counted in the autism category would probably have been counted in the mental retardation or learning disabilities categories if they were being labeled 10 years ago instead of today," Shattuck says in a news release.

And that's not the only reason why special-education statistics are misleading.

"Schools didn't start counting kids with autism until the early 1990s," Shattuck tells WebMD. "Current counts [of autistic kids in special-ed classes] are still below what the true [autism] prevalence is. And if you take into consideration that counts of special kids in other categories declined at a rate corresponding to the increase in the autism rate, then all of a sudden those special-ed trend lines don't look so worrisome."

Despite the explosion in the enrollment of autistic kids in special-education classes, Shattuck says there are still a lot of autistic kids who aren't getting these services.

"We should expect special-education trends in most states to continue going up in the foreseeable future because most state special-ed counts are significantly underestimating the number of kids who actually have autism," he says.

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