Special education students with autism in California have more than tripled in number since 2002, even as overall special education enrollment has remained relatively flat, according to an analysis of state education data released yesterday.
More than 680,000 students – 11 percent of all California public school students – are enrolled in special education. The number of students diagnosed with autism climbed from 17,508 in 2002 to 59,690 in 2010, the Lucile Packard Foundation for Children's Health found.
Students with autism represented 8.8 percent of all special education enrollment last year, up from 2.6 percent in 2002. Other health impairments – defined by the state as "limited strength, vitality or alertness, due to chronic or acute health problems," such as a heart condition, asthma, epilepsy or leukemia – are also on the rise, comprising 7.9 percent of disabilities among special education students.
At the same time, the number of special education students with a learning disability – the most common diagnosis – is falling. In 2002, 52.4 percent of students had a learning disability, compared to 42.3 percent in 2010. Speech or language impairment affects about one-quarter of special education students.
The data do not explain these shifts in disability diagnoses. The foundation has asked the public to provide perspective on the trends, which track with special education figures nationwide. Autism is the fastest-growing student disability in the country, and learning disability rates are declining, according to a 2009 report [PDF] by the Public Policy Institute of California.
Disability and special education data by county and school district are available at kidsdata.org.