By Anne Dachel
As the saying goes, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” If you want a current example of that regarding autism numbers, you have only to look at the January 21, 2019 piece from the Sacramento Bee by Michael Finch II.
Notice the stunning title: Special education enrollment in California is up. No one can say exactly why.
It was the same sense of mystery that always surrounds coverage of autism and for good reason.
The Modesto Bee, the Napa Valley Register, and the San Luis Obispo Tribune quickly republished the Sac Bee piece, and even though the headline talked about special education, the piece was almost entirely about the exploding number of kids with autism in California schools.
The story started with the example of twin boys who, according to their mom, a physician’s assistant, were “normal and healthy at first” and later diagnosed with autism and cerebral palsy.
Of course it isn’t just autism happening to SPED, but it’s an overwhelming part of the story.
Special education enrollment has surged in the last decade, with more than 96,000 students pouring into school districts across the state, according to data from the California Department of Education.
One of the drivers has been a marked increase in students with autism and other behavioral delays, a Bee analysis shows. At the same time, the number of students with other disabilities grew modestly or decreased between the 2009 and 2018 school years.
Once again, Finch retreated to the standard autism shoulder shrug:
Although the trend is undeniable, no one can say exactly why it’s happening.
More of the mystery.
And where would we be without the decades long baseless chants about no real increase—these kids have always been here, we just didn’t notice?
Finch explained it like this: “Awareness has grown,” “Teachers are trained to recognize the disorder,” and “The definition was changed.”
But hey, in the end, we just don’t know why (or really care).
The increased prevalence of autism has been a medical mystery for years.
So the autism puzzle remains with no one desperate to know why the never-ending increases continue. The guesses have remained unchanged for years, faithfully repeated each time a new rate is announced, usually in conjunction with the annual celebrate autism festivities in April.
One Fresno school official cited in the story was actually happy about the soaring autistic population.
Kalpakoff sees an upside in the increase. If there are more students being diagnosed, she said it shows the school system must be doing a good job identifying children in need.
I’m amazed at reporter Finch’s indifference to the growth in a significant population of disabled children who weren’t there at these numbers even ten years ago.
Back in 2016 the Sac Bee ran the story, Number of California students classified as autistic jumps for 14th consecutive year
More than 90,000 California public school students are autistic, a number that has risen more than six-fold since 2001, according to the latest data from the California Department of Education.
The figure represent a jump of about 6,000, or 7 percent, from 2013-14 to 2014-15. More than one of every 75 kindergartners in California public schools is classified as autistic.
The number of autistic students statewide has risen by between 5,000 and 7,000 every year for a decade. In 2001, there were about 14,000 autistic students in the state.
Each year since at least 2001, the number of autistic students has risen by 7 percent or more, state figures show.
And five years ago the Sac Bee published the story, Number of Sacramento County autistic students doubles over six years (no longer available online).
The public was told:
About 3,100 Sacramento County public school students are autistic, a number that has risen seven-fold since 2000, according to new figures from the California Department of Education. . .
Theories for the rise, which is a nationwide phenomenon, include improved autism screening, broader definitions of the condition and a genuine increase in autism cases.
A recent University of California study concluded that changes in diagnoses patterns alone cannot explain the rise in the disease. Instead, the study postulated that environmental factors were partially to blame and called for more study of the effects of viruses, pesticides, chemicals and other substances on the development of autism.
Fears that modern vaccines cause autism have led to an increase in parents not vaccinating their children. The American Academy of Pediatrics says no evidence exists linking autism to vaccines.
Here’s the message that will never change:
More kids have an autism diagnosis, no one knows why, it may be a true increase or not be a real increase at all, and always remember: there’s no link to the one-size-fits-every-child vaccine schedule.
Michael Finch’s story left us with all kinds of unanswered questions and no sense of urgency. It was a complete surrender to forces of unstoppable autism.
Finch, like every other member of the media, really doesn’t care about what this all means. Ten years ago, President pro Tem of the California State Senate, Darrell Steinberg, announced the establishment of the Senate Select Committee on Autism (ASD). Steinberg said that their intention is to make autism a “public health priority.”
Various state officials and autism advocates spoke at a press conference explaining what their work would include. They talked about the cost of autism, the need for services, and the shocking numbers in CA.
While Steinberg made a reference to the “prevention of autism,” no one expanded on this idea during the press conference. A number of upcoming bills were talked about.
One state senator aimed to help with early diagnosing and intervention. Someone else was working on housing for people with autism. Another senator is focusing on employment for affected adults.
One speaker gave us the mind-boggling numbers, saying that there were "14,000 students with autism a decade ago.” Then he added the increase, “46,000 students today, and growing."
Back in 2009, as I watched that video, I kept waiting for someone to say that we have to find out why this is happening to so many children. We can't keep adding thousands like this. This is a national health care emergency. But no one did.
Rick Rollens of the MIND INSTITUTE spoke and made these haunting comments.
"Autism is epidemic in this state as it is throughout the country."
"Autism population is skewed dramatically toward young children."
"Eight-four percent of the autism population is under the age of 21."
"More six and seven year olds in the system than all the adults with autism combined."
So ten years later with the numbers having doubled in California schools, according to the Sac Bee, autism remains the epidemic we will just have to live with forever.
Anne Dachel is Media Editor for Age of Autism.