Is the autism “epidemic” truly a national and even global crisis, as news media have reported, or has autism become the most popular medical diagnosis, as was the case with Attention-Deficit Disorder (ADD) in the ‘90s? A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated that 1 in 88 children in the U.S. have an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). This indicates doubling, tripling, and in some areas of the country, even quadrupling rates of autism in children since the last statistics were made available.
Some neuropsychologists and education experts question the reliability of the results of the CDC study. The estimates have generated a heated debate as to whether or not the dramatic increases are real or are instead attributed to misdiagnoses, greater awareness among educators and pediatricians, an expanded definition of autism spectrum disorders or a combination of these factors.
A substantial body of recent research reaffirms the growing prevalence of ASD. A landmark study released May 1, 2012 by Princeton University and the Brookings Institution found that over the past several decades, the rates of developmental, behavioral and mental-health disorders in children in special education programs are increasing much faster than and are more prevalent than physical disabilities. One in five parents report their child has Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). ASD affects about 6 percent of all special education students, up from 2 percent over the last decade.
Much of the debate has centered on the rate at which the numbers of children with ASD is increasing. The CDC study’s author has stated that the results were intended as a snapshot, not as a rule. The discussion has focused on defining the problem instead of finding good solutions. We must take a new stance, beginning with a discussion about how to alter the long term impact of increased autism rates.
The national crisis is not about numbers. Much more pressing is the inability to provide access to vital services like early intervention, developmentally appropriate resources, special education teachers and specialists like speech pathologists. The Autism Society estimates costs associated with autism over a lifetime at 3.2 million dollars per person. Sixty percent of those costs are for adult services. The cost of lifelong care can be reduced by 2/3 with early diagnosis and intervention beginning as early as age two.
The Digest of Education Statistics reports that the majority of children with disabilities attend regular public schools, schools that already struggle to fund existing programs. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that all children must receive equal access to an education that will prepare them for college and a career, placing the burden on public schools when parents cannot afford private care.
Special education programs cost tens of thousands of dollars annually per child. School district budgets are already stretched thin to meet the needs of children who do not receive such services. Schools and teachers are rarely equipped with the necessary staff and resources to handle spiking numbers of students with behavioral, developmental and mental-health disabilities like autism.
Typically developing students in the U.S. already lag behind their peers in other countries. High school graduates struggle to place high enough on college entrance exams to qualify for admission. If our system is floundering to adequately educate typically developing students, how will we fare in 10 – 15 years when the growing population of children with special abilities face eligibility tests required for high school graduation, college admission boards and job interviews?
The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reports that in 2009, 44% of students with autism attended postsecondary school, compared to 59% of all students with disabilities. Additionally, less than one third of people with ASD were competitively employed in 2009.
What kind of drastic changes to our education system are going to be required; and how do we implement them fast enough to head off the negative impacts that holes in our current system will have for the growing population of children with ASD? Can an emphasis on appropriate early intervention support students with special abilities?
If you are interested in this topic and have questions about autism in the preschool classroom, please sign up to attend the webinar that will take place today, May 17, 2012 at 2:00 p.m. EST with Dr. Mike Assel, “Autism in the Preschool Classroom.” Dr. Assel is a leading expert in the field of pediatric autism at the University of Texas-Health Sciences Center’s Children’s Learning Institute. If you cannot attend, please still register and you will be provided with a link to the archive.