Sacramento County Schools “See” The Invisible Epidemic

5 Sep

At the end of this past week, California’s Sacramento Bee reports that “Autism rates quadruple in local schools over last decade“. The article, written by Phillip Reese, seems largely unremarkable. Even though headline is suggestive, there are no claims of “autism epidemic” that follow. In fact, Reese points out that:

Whether autism is actually more prevalent — as opposed to just more frequently diagnosed — is a matter of controversy.

From a scientific perspective, Reese definitely could have dug a lot deeper, but to a casual reader, the relevant facts seem pretty accurate, and a clear chart is provided.

The problem with an article like this, is that to a casual reader it may appear that there doesn’t seem to be any explanation in sight. “Autism is on the increase in Sacramento County Schools for the past decade”, and that’s that – “Why” is some sort of “controversy”, “some districts have more autistic students than others”, “here’s a chart”, and the article ends.

Did the Sacramento Bee miss an opportunity to carry their headline further, and expose an acutal “autism epidemic” in northern California schools?

Not surprisingly, Age Of Autism (always on the lookout for support of the notion that there’s been an autism “epidemic”) thought so. As it turns out, AoA resisted the urge to dig much deeper too. They were apparently satisfied to present a simple retort to the indication that whether or autism is actually more prevalent or more frequently diagnosed is “controversial”.

Seems the SacBee hasn’t read the study from their own state U that said, A study by researchers at the UC Davis M.I.N.D. Institute has found that the seven- to eight-fold increase in the number children born in California with autism since 1990 cannot be explained by either changes in how the condition is diagnosed or counted – and the trend shows no sign of abating.

Emphasis AoA’s.

If you think the emapahsized quote above sounds more like a press release than an acutal study, you’d be correct. Does the quoted press release overstate the actual conclusions of the study?

I’ll let readers be the judge of that, here’s the actual study’s conclusion:

Autism incidence in California shows no sign yet of plateauing. Younger ages at diagnosis, differential migration, changesin diagnostic criteria, and inclusion of milder cases do not fully explain the observed increases. Other artifacts have yet to be quantified, and as a result, the extent to which the continued rise represents a true increase in the occurrence of autism remains unclear.

Emphasis mine.

As foreshadowed for us in the conclusion of the actual study, what other artifacts might there be, that have “yet to be quantified”? Big ones like changes in awareness or diagnostic substitution?

Let’s quantify one of those potential artifacts (diagnostic substitution) for the Sacramento County Schools data, shall we?

Here’s the data (available online to the public):

To sum things up, I think Reese’s article/blurb would have been more interesting, only requiring a few extra minutes (the data is already there, presented on the same page when looking up the autism numbers), if it had included information about other changes like the “more than offsetting decrease” of Specific Learning Disabilities over the same time period.

Tell us what you think? Could newspapers do better when reporting on autism data, or do they simply present what their readers are really looking for?

Additional reading on this subject:

California’s Invisible Autism Epidemic (Jan 2009)

California’s Invisible Autism Epidemic Continues (Feb 2010)

California’s Specific Learning Disabilities Counter Epidemic (Feb 2011)

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12 Responses to “Sacramento County Schools “See” The Invisible Epidemic”

  1. stanley seigler September 5, 2011 at 20:00 #

    [LBRB say]…seven- to eight-fold increase in…autism since 1990 cannot be explained by either changes in how the condition is diagnosed or counted – and the trend shows no sign of abating…Tell us what you think? Could newspapers do better when reporting on autism data, or do they simply present what their readers are really looking for?

    COMMENT
    “do they simply present what their readers are really looking for”…or do they report the opine of some pro/nonpro PR firm (advocate maybe)…who got their ear

    Sacremento County Schools Special Ed Enrollment 2001-2011:
    specific learning disability minus 2678
    autism plus 1818

    comment from sacbee:
    “Reese’s article falls way short of reporting what may really be going on in Sacramento County. Over the same time period, the number of students with Specific Learning Disabilities [SLD] has decreased by a number much larger than the autism category increase, resulting in net fewer students with autism and Specific Learning Disabilities combined. What’s responsible for this great decrease in SLD’s in Sacramento County? Can the Age of Autism tell us? [end quote]

    i have same wonderment…

    sacbee comment: “I’ve heard people say that Autism is bunk and that it’s just bad parenting…[end quote]

    excluding above there are some interesting sacbee comments…one my want to check them out…

    stanley seigler

  2. Doug September 6, 2011 at 16:40 #

    The decrease in SLD numbers will likely occur nationwide as more districts implement Response to Intervention under IDEA. I looked at the number of students with cognitive delay and in Montana we had a decrease of 15% from 2002 to 2008. (http://opi.mt.gov/users/dougdoty/weblog/95553/Handouts_from_CEC_and_Western_Montana_Autism_Conference_2011.html) slide 57.

  3. Sullivan September 6, 2011 at 19:54 #

    I can’t complain too much. I’ve dragged myself back into the vaccine/epidemic discussion for the past week.

    In years of articles, what is the ratio of actual information on AoA? There have been a few articles. Only a few.

    Of course they would jump on this. The news paper of the epidemic (or whatever they call themselves) needs to have an epidemic after all.

    So much time wasted. So much good that could have been done.

  4. livsparents September 6, 2011 at 20:53 #

    If the reporter didn’t leave vacuums like this, what would people like Anne Dachel do with their time…filling the commentary with vaccine/epidemic rhetoric? What’s truly pathetic is that they take the ‘creationist’ viewpoint of scientific theory; that your SLD changes relating to autism are a theory, just like their theory that the vaccine schedule has caused and epidemic of autism. The numbers are equivalent: Your theory is 95% proven; theirs 95% dis proven…see they are the same!

  5. Do'C September 7, 2011 at 01:09 #

    “If the reporter didn’t leave vacuums like this”

    Exactly. I’d be curious to hear from Phillip Reese… Would we hear, “I have to write X number of articles per day, there isn’t time for more detail”, or, “I don’t ususally write about special education”, or something else altogether?

    • Sullivan September 7, 2011 at 01:35 #

      Do’C,

      as long as the Bee is writing a “blast from the past” type article, why didn’t they get a quote from Rick Rollens? Heck, add a quote from Mr. Rollens and this would have been a typical news story 5 or 10 years ago.

  6. Prometheus September 9, 2011 at 18:44 #

    Sullivan,

    Good point – what has Mr. Rollens been doing these days, now that he’s not being bombarded by interview requests? For that matter, what’s new with Boyd Haley?

    I’d like to suggest that one of the more socially connected ‘bloggers run a “Where are they now?” post, getting us up-to-date on the folks who used to be so much in the news.

    Prometheus

  7. stanley seigler September 11, 2011 at 23:25 #

    [Prometheus say]…what has Mr. Rollens been doing these days…

    COMMENT

    in case it’s not a facetious question: these days, rollens organized an advocate group that deals mainly with legislation to improve the quality of life for those on the spectrum…eg;

    [3feb2011] “The Alliance of California Autism Organizations (ACAO) is calling on autism advocates across the state to support Assembly Bill 171 (Beall)…ACAO, an alliance of over 40 California-based local, state, and nationally affiliated autism organizations, believes meaningful health insurance reform is necessary for the well-being of all individuals with autism and their families. For more information, contact former Autism Society National Board Member Rick Rollens at [contact info removed]. [end quote]
    http://groups.yahoo.com/group/DDRIGHTS/message/6643

    USA-CA legs recently passed several bills affecting health care for those on the spectrum…eg;

    “Bill Passes 25 to 4 – Would Require Private Health Insurance Plans To Provide Behavioral Health Treatment As Covered Benefit [end quote]http://groups.yahoo.com/group/DDRIGHTS/message/7400

    rollens has moved on from his antiVAX crusade…it might be a good idea for other crusaders (VAX/antiVAXers) to consider…

    stanley seigler

  8. stanley seigler September 12, 2011 at 16:30 #

    LBRB,

    i have sent messages here that are not posted…pls advise if i have been banned…not a problem just dont want to waste time trying…

    if messages for some reason hung up somewhere…pls just post the latest and delete others

    thanks

    stanley seigler

  9. Do'C September 12, 2011 at 17:04 #

    Hi Stanley,

    Your comment on this post from yesterday was in the SPAM filter. I’m really not sure why, other than that possibility it was because it contained “mailto:”

  10. stanley seigler September 12, 2011 at 18:28 #

    thanks for posting and for the “mailto:” clue…

    stanley

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