California’s Specific Learning Disabilities Counter Epidemic

19 Feb

The U.S. and California Departments of Education recently released special education data (child counts) for the 2008-2009 school year. A particular focus in the media has been a tripling of the number of students who wear a special education label of “autism” in California.

Needless to say, some probably see this as confirmation of an “autism epidemic”. For a particularly myopic and emotional (anger and fear) interpretation of this recent news story, one need go no further than “Autism Epidemic” central (AoA) and read the data-free opinion piece by Anne Dachel.

For the bigger picture in California, a look at the actual data might be in order.

California Data

For those who may not be able to see the graph of the IDEA data that most closely represents the K-12 age group as a percentage of the resident population, receiving special education services for the last ten years in California: Autism has steadily increased from .13% to .64%, Specific Learning Disabilities has steadily decreased from 5.64% to 4.41%, and totals for all disabilities has remained flat at about 9.2%.

If you believe there’s been an “autism epidemic”, and that special education data from California proves that the schools are overwhelmed, here are a two questions for you:

1. What has caused the decrease in Specific Learning Disabilities (a decrease that more than offsets the increase in autism)?

2. If the special education totals remain unchanged, why are the schools “overwhelmed”?

17 Responses to “California’s Specific Learning Disabilities Counter Epidemic”

  1. stanley seigler February 19, 2011 at 20:26 #

    [LBRB say] If you believe there’s been an “autism epidemic”, and that special education data from California proves that the schools are overwhelmed, here are a two questions for you…

    thanks…we need to ask questions…get more details/specifics…the public has to be better educated on all issues…we must stop making decisions based on sound bites and FOX news…and other media as well…almost forgot sloppy promotional science.

    “we have to stop listening to talking heads (pundits?) telling us everything about anything that they know nothing about” (dont remember the exact quote)

    stanley seigler

  2. Shannon February 19, 2011 at 21:45 #

    I love this! It’s hard to not feel like it is an epidemic when it happens to you, but all of the data seems to prove otherwise. As a mom the last thing I want to do is panic and when AoA and others try to make us believe that something new in the physical environment(pollution, dairy, vaccines, non-organic sheets) is damaging our children it is scary.

  3. Anne February 20, 2011 at 05:09 #

    Regarding the schools being overwhelmed, it occurred to me that although students with disabilities remained at a level percentage of the school population, maybe the raw numbers went up. But they didn’t, they went down. There’s also a percentage decrease for MR.

  4. McD February 20, 2011 at 06:05 #

    Dachel’s article had me cracking up. Dachel: WHERE are the adults with autism?

    Well, my Dad, age 67, is not too far away. He never actually left home (although he did manage to father at least five kids to two women) and has been having significant problems since my grandmother died in the 90s. She left me and my aunt as trustees for him, and he is now getting home help, meals-on-wheels and other supports which enable him to live very happily on his own with minimal requirement to negotiate hassles.

    Turns out the rate of adult autism has been investigated recently: “1.0% of the adult population had ASD. The rate was higher in men (1.8%) than women (0.2%), which fits with the profile found in childhood population studies.”

    So if there is an ‘epidemic’, it has been fairly steady for some time now, at least in the UK.

    Ref: (Brugha T, McManus S, Meltzer H et al. Autism Spectrum Disorders in adults living in households throughout England: Report from the Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey 2007) PDF is here:

    Click to access APMS_Autism_report_standard_20_OCT_09.pdf

  5. McD February 20, 2011 at 07:16 #

    Oops, should have said ‘thanks’ to AWOL for giving me the lead on the UK stats. It was point number 9 in his/er post:

    Which came from the Autism Society website, and the ref they gave actually checked out as noted above. Although they didn’t note the male:female difference and how the prevalence mirrors the present child figures.

    Which makes one wonder how they, and AWOL, can post it several lines down from factoid #3: “3. Fastest-growing developmental disability; 1,148% growth rate.”

    Must be that old incidence (factoid #3) vs prevalence (factoid #9) problem.

  6. passionlessDrone February 20, 2011 at 23:14 #

    Hi DoC –

    This graph, of which you’ve posted several similar ones in the past, has really bothered me; the logical argument you present seems strong if you look at the numbers, and I do tend to believe in a non trivial increase in the number of children with autism. I’m not shouting epidemic, but I do think that it is something to be alarmed about. And yet, this graph looks pretty simple. So what to do?

    If the special education totals remain unchanged, why are the schools “overwhelmed”?

    Unfortunately, I don’t think that just looking at the numbers is the right argument; it has a foundation of an over simplification, that anyone with an IDEA classification is an equivalent consumer of resources. If we make this assumption, the problems with schools being overwhelmed makes no sense. But I don’t think that’s how it works; I don’t know about California, but it isn’t anything like how things work where my son went to school.

    My son has autism, and is relatively severe. Until very recently he was in a special education class room with four other children, three with autism and one with Downs. There were one full time teacher, and one full time aide in his class with an occassional other helper from time to time. There were daily visits from a variety of underpowered therapists.

    My son was in a classroom for children chronologically aged for first and second grade. For children not in special education, there are eleven classrooms for first and second graders; each with about twenty children in them. Lets just say ten classsrooms; or about two hundred kids.

    What this means is that while there may be other kids at the school with IDEA classifications; the ones that are in special education classes, the ones that are being taught with exceptionally low teacher to student ratios and daily visits by therapists, and thus cost drivers, are disproportionally autistic. If your child is in a special education class, one with very few students, what does the composition of the class look like in terms of students with autism, versus those with other types of disabilities? This is an honest question for anyone out there with a child on the spectrum.

    If our goal is to understand if the resources being requested to help edducate IDEA children is overwhelming, the raw number of children aren’t important except at the most superficial level. The salient question, one which cannot be answered by your graph, is, do the children with autism cost more to educate than a child with a ‘specific learning disability’?

    Anyone out there actually in the business of raising a child with autism knows immediately that the answer to this question is, yes. ABA therapists frequently cost $100 / hour, as do speech, and OT therapists. IEPs crafted by hardened parents have all of these things attached to them. Does a child with Down’s syndrome need an ABA therapist? No. Does a child with ADD need a speech therapist, or an ABA therapist? For that matter, is a child with ADD in a special education classroom with a exceedingly expensive teacher to student ratio? No no no.

    Whatever the problems with arguments like Ms. Daschels, and there are many, I don’t think that the satellite view of the number of children with IDEA data can give us a good idea of the budgetary impact of the increase in the number of children with autism.

    – pD

  7. Do'C February 21, 2011 at 05:53 #

    Fair and good points for consideration pD.

    However, I disagree with your assertion to answer the “salient” question:

    The salient question, one which cannot be answered by your graph, is, do the children with autism cost more to educate than a child with a ‘specific learning disability’?

    Anyone out there actually in the business of raising a child with autism knows immediately that the answer to this question is, yes.

    I think your addressing of the impact of specific learning disability with examples of ADD and Down Syndrome is probably incomplete.

    See the full definition here.

    Further, if diagnostic substitution of autism for some specific learning disabilities has taken place, there is more than one possibility: provision of appropriate education costs about the same (it’s just delivered differently), or provision of appropriate education does cost more, and simply didn’t happen for a significant number of kids who were probably autistic, but labeled as having specific learning disabilities in the past.

    What’s been the impact of per-pupil special education funding in California during the past ten years?

  8. Dinah Everett Snyder February 28, 2011 at 11:47 #

    @ passionlessdrone; I agree with you on several points you make. However, not all children with ASD fall into the criteria of a seperate classroom, yet may still need copious support. ASD children may sit in regular classrooms yet have need of speech therapy,( for stutters and other ticks and stims) Friendship Club ( to help with social issues on premise) an individual to monitor them at recess ( some , like mine likes to ” escape”)a helper for test taking, and then there are homework modifications, additional after school supports that parents pay out of pocket and let’s not forget that many parents of ASD children have chosen to home school, or partly home school. Then too there are charter schools that have become increasingly autism orientated, one in Marin, one in Napa, 5 in Colorado and I am sure that there are more.

    Remember that as per the supplemental notes referenced, autistic children may have overlays of criteria listed under different headings such as developmental delays, Emotional Disturbances, Speech Language Impairment, Specific Learning Disability and the ever ” Other” category….

    Remeber too that attention deficit and ADD and ADHD are all recognized as autism spectrum, yet schools have leeway through their districts as to how they categorize these: as individual issues or as collectives under the Autism category. For those reasons then I must say that the above graph gives a highly unbalanced and incomplete picture of what is really going on.

    Statistics are always open to interpretation and are not the Holy Grail of answers to biased questions Do’C.

    Dinah Everett Snyder

  9. sharon February 28, 2011 at 12:05 #

    @Dinah, I was not aware that ADD/ADHD were considered Autism Spectrum disorders. I know that some people can have a dual diagnosis of ASD and ADD/ADHD. Just as they may also have OCD, ODD, BPD, and so on. But it is my understanding, particularly based on the new proposed DSM criteria for ASD, that ASD and ADD/ADHD are two separate diagnosis that do not fall under the same umberella.

  10. Dinah Everett Snyder February 28, 2011 at 20:53 #

    @ Sharon: It is my understanding that ASD has been expanded over the years to include, potentially, all of the ones which you mention. School districts as I said are able to divvy this up according to their own criteria ( perhaps fed funds allocation?? I am not sure)also, doctors that specialize in childhood behaviour disorders increasingly are refering to ADHD,ADD, OCD etc as part of the ASD range. Aspies of course are a part of the ASD range too, and while they may function quite well academically in mainstream classrooms they are particularly vulnerable to social/ peer issues that need monitoring and attention to help them integrate.

    According to Dr Russel Barkley, clinical prof of psychiatry at the Medical Univ of South Carolina,” ADHD is rarely misdiagnosed as autism, yet autism is often misdiagnosed as ADHD in it’s early stages”. That’s because the 2 conditions overlap, according to studies. Forty % of autistic children have ADHD, and a portion of ADHD children have autistic traits. Parents AND practitioners often pick up on one while missing the other. Some signs can be more subtle and the degree varies from child to child.
    The differential diagnosis of ADHD is not based on inattention- it’s based on the other deficits that go along with inattention: lack of self control, heedlessness, recklessness, thoughlessness, an inability to think of consequences before acting, lack of empathy….
    While ASD children are not merely inattentive. They may have problems with language, stand too close to others or feel boxed in when others stand too close, find social situations awkward all the way through to threatening, or they may be completely disinterested in social events, be unable to make eye contact, or engage in flapping, rocking or other stims, react to smells, sounds or light.

    Dr. Jeff Bradstreet , a pediatrician and medical director of the International Autism Research Center in Florida said that virtually all children with autism have some other significant abnormal function.
    Going back to Sharons point though, I simply don’t know what the new proposed criteria are, I merely know what the criteria have been and how that has translated into services or the lack thereof, the impact on my family and on the few hundred families with ASD children that I am in contact with.
    It would be rather wonderful ( for better or worse) to know what the guidlines will be and how they are to be interpreted by schools and healthcare.

    Dinah Everett Snyder

  11. sharon February 28, 2011 at 23:56 #

    @Dinah, the revision of the DSM has been discussed on this very blog so should not be too difficult to find if you are interested. Or you could google proposed defintion for Autism in DSM5. Yes ADD/ADHD are often misdiagnosed when the child has in fact an ASD. There’s no doubt in my mind that much mis diagnosis occurs. Autism Spectrum Disorder covers Autism/Aspergers and PDD-NOS. All other diagnosis are distinct and seperate. And, as I said above, can co exist with an ASD. This is at least my undertanding. (Not sure where Fragile X fits BTW.)

  12. Chris July 29, 2012 at 19:22 #

    That website looks like it can contain malware. Do not click on it.

  13. Maddy April 19, 2014 at 00:55 #

    In two words = budget cuts, because the wealthiest country in the world cannot afford ‘education.’

  14. brian May 4, 2016 at 17:59 #

    Vaccines, environmental triggers, parental age – it’s highly unlikely that any of those are driving the dramatic increase in the autism rate, a [2016] Chapman University study found.

    Rather, the study concluded the rate – which is now 1 in 50 in Orange County, the highest in the state – can be “almost completely” explained by a change in how the disorder is diagnosed.


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