Fran Arner-Costello, director of programs and services at the Ventura County Special Education Local Plan Area (SELPA), said children with autism make up about 11 percent of the 16,000 students with disabilities served by the county’s school districts.
“These are kids who meet the special education eligibility guidelines, which are different from a medical diagnosis of autism,” Arner-Costello said. “It’s not a mental health diagnosis, so the guidelines are not as stringent. It’s more of an educational designation.”
As of December 2011, Ventura County SELPA provides special education services to 1,780 children and adults from infants to age 22 under the autism designation— 7 percent more than the 1,659 people with autism it served in 2010.
“Some of the kids may have just a few characteristics—mild social and communication deficits,” Arner-Costello said. “Then some may be considered full-scale autistic, with extreme symptoms and more intensive social, cognitive and developmental needs.”
Steven Graff, director of clinical services at the Tri-Counties Regional Center (TCRC)—the agency through which the state of California provides services and support to people with developmental disabilities in Ventura County—said the rise may be attributed to a number of factors.
“First of all, we’re much better at diagnosing autism now,” Graff said. “We’re catching it younger and identifying it more accurately. That’s going to count for a huge percentage of the increase.”
Graff said environmental factors— such as pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals that can affect fetal development—also may contribute to an increase in autism prevalence.
“It’s not legitimate to say it’s rising only because of one thing,” Graff said. “If you’re looking at a minimum of three or four factors, there’s going to be a certain amount of overlap. It’s most definitely a multifactorial question.”
Still, Graff said the prevalence of autism in Ventura County has “absolutely increased.”