reviewed by 24/7 Wall St. shows there has been a 76% increase in the number of reported autistic students in public schools between 2004 and 2009, according to The U.S. Department of Education’s Child Count data. More than a half-dozen states including Pennsylvania, Indiana, Oregon, Colorado, Nebraska, Rhode Island North Dakota and Wyoming showed that their autistic student populations have doubled or more than doubled. States such as Mississippi, Tennessee and Connecticut showed gains of 90% or more. The government data shows that there are approximately 330,000 students classified with the disorder by their school district though estimates of the true rates are higher.
Federal data pegs the costs of educating a student with the condition at $18,800 a year, roughly three times as much as a child without autism. These figures are likely out-of-date since they were from the 1999-2000 school year and were contained in a 2005 GAO report.
Not only was there a huge jump in the number of autistic students, but the variations in the percentage of students with the disorder varied widely from state to state. Minnesota, for one, says its autism rate was .99% of all students among 6 to 21 year olds, the highest reported of any state for the 2008-2009 school year. Iowa was the lowest at .11%. Both states say there are reasons for their rankings.
“Consistent with the dramatic increases observed in every state, the Minnesota Child Count for this age group in this category, increased over the past 10 years,” writes Christine Dufour, a spokeswoman for the Minnesota Department of Education, in an email. “Yet, the true rate for Minnesota is unknown. There has never been a true prevalence study conducted here. …. There are several reasons why it is difficult to make comparisons to other states’ identification rates: Every state has established a different criteria for eligibility under the Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) category, so some differences should be expected. Some states criteria are more strict and others more inclusive. For example, Minnesota specifically includes individuals with Asperger’s in its ASD criteria and some states do not.”
Officials in Iowa realized that their data was probably wrong and are planning to conduct a survey in April of parents to get a more accurate picture, says Sue Baker, an official with the Iowa Department of Education. “We have been asking ourselves why,” she says, adding that one reason for the state’s low score might be that “you don’t need a medical diagnosis for autism to get services. That confounds how we count children.”
Iowa’s latest unofficial autism student count for the 2009-2010 school year was 5,127, up from 4,502 the previous year, she says, adding that Iowa is one of the few states permitted by the U.S. Department of Education to provide special education services on a “non-categorical” basis.
“We definitely increased our training and awareness about autism,” says Theresa Coons, an education specialist with the Nebraska Department of Education. “We basically started that in 2001 and 2002. Some children could have been identified in a different category.”