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Autism diagnosis rates tripled in less than two decades. What does that mean for schools?

Autism diagnosis rates tripled in less than two decades. What does that mean for schools?

Researchers at Rutgers University recently published a study in the journal Pediatrics finding that autism diagnosis rates among 8-year-olds nearly tripled in the New York-New Jersey metropolitan area between 2000 and 2016.

What is autism?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention define autism spectrum disorder (ASD) as a “developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges.”

CDC data shows roughly 1 in 44 children nationally has been diagnosed with ASD. A 2021 report found national increases at rates similar to those found in the Rutgers study.

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Why is autism becoming more common?

A big reason is greater awareness of its existence and complexities, as well as improvements in diagnostic tools and education. But other potential causes include a person’s genes and environmental circumstances. There’s little evidence that the disorder is caused by vaccines.

Autism diagnosis rates tripled in less than two decades. What does that mean for schools?Amit Kumar and his son, Ray, work on a do-it-yourself electronics project. Ray, who has autism, responded quickly to the standard treatment, but the family’s health plan in Virginia, Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield, said it was not included or not medically necessary. The family moved to Irvine, California in 2021 solely because California more strictly regulates coverage.Not an intellectual disability

Autism is described as a spectrum disorder because it manifests in different ways depending on the person, with varying degrees of severity. As awareness about the condition has grown, so too has recognition that autism isn’t an intellectual disability and can occur in people with average and above-average IQs.

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The Rutgers researchers, who examined data for nearly 5,000 children who had been identified with ASD, found that just one in three also had intellectual disabilities. The rate of diagnoses among children with average or above-average IQs increased five-fold.

Notably, ASD diagnoses increased most among wealthy children without intellectual disabilities, revealing grave, persistent disparities in who gets access to the appropriate medical and educational supports. For example:

Children in affluent areas were 80% more likely than their peers in underserved areas to be identified as having ASD without an intellectual disability.

Black children were 30% less likely than white children to be identified as having ASD without an intellectual disability.

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Universal screening for autism is “not happening consistently, and even when it happens, the follow-through – where the parents are referred to appropriate services – that’s also lacking,” Josephine Shenouda, a Rutgers epidemiologist who co-authored the study, told NBC News.

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What does this mean for students?

The uptick in diagnoses coincides with a worsening special education teacher and staff shortage. Special education tends to have significantly more vacancies than other subjects and disciplines – staffing challenges that in general tend to be most pronounced at low-income schools.

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What’s more, many parents during the pandemic were unable to get their children a diagnosis or services, which could have long-term consequences. Experts say early intervention can be key to helping autistic children and children with other special needs achieve fulfill their potential.

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Contact Alia Wong at (202) 507-2256 or [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at @aliaemily.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: New study indicates the percentage of children with autism is climbing