Is Autism Increasing, or Is the Diagnosis of Autism Increasing?

This chart reflects the number of children taking the SOL Reading tests. It may omit a few children who did not take the test.

The number of children with autism in Virginia public schools surged roughly 270% between the 2005-06 school year and the 2016-17 school year, far outpacing the modest increase in children with disabilities, according to data in the Virginia Department of Education SOL “Build-a-Table” database.

Most other major classifications of disabilities declined over the same period, raising the possibility that the dramatic increase in the number of children with autism reflects not an underlying increase in children with the disability but a reclassification of children already known to have learning and emotional problems.

The table above shows the total number of children who took the Standard of Learning reading test in the 2016-17 school year as well as the percentage increase in the number from the 2005-2006 school year (the earliest year in the SOL build-a-table database).

Aside from autism, the only other major category that increased in numbers was “other health impairments.” Other categories in which symptoms might resemble those of autism — “emotional disturbance,” “multiple disabilities,” and “specific learning disabilities” — declined in numbers comparable to the increase in autism.

Bacon’s bottom line: Despite the common perception that the incidence of autism is increasing, there is a strong possibility that it’s the diagnosis of autism that is increasing. As a result, children falling into other disability categories are decreasing.

In a previous article I posted about autism, I noted that autism-related spending in public schools has increased significantly in recent years, putting fiscal pressure on local school systems and, indirectly, taxpayers. I’m not so certain that’s the case anymore. While the number children with autism may have increased, if many have been reclassified from other disabilities, the fiscal burden may not be increasing. The total number of all disabilities in Virginia schools (as measured by those taking the English SOLs) has increased only 4% over the 11-year period — hardly a cause for alarm.

These numbers do raise some interesting questions, though. Does the increase in number of autism diagnoses in Virginia’s K-12 population reflect a more acute understanding of the condition in the medical community and a spreading awareness in the general population? Alternatively, are there incentives in the system — more money allocated to children with autism compared to children with other disabilities — that encourage parents to favor the diagnosis? Is the increase in autism reclassification spread evenly across racial and socioeconomic groups, or is it more common in affluent households? If children with autism receive more resources, are affluent households the ones reaping the greatest benefit?

Whatever the case, these data suggest that the increasing diagnoses of autism may not portend a fiscal problem, as I had suggested in my earlier post. And that’s good news.

Bacon’s Rebellion… boldly asking the politically incorrect questions that could incite the wrath of the Twitter Outrage Mob so you don’t have to.

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16 responses to “Is Autism Increasing, or Is the Diagnosis of Autism Increasing?”

  1. Do they really have autism or just anti social attitude? I’ve got some kids that I could see under DSM-IV but others, I’m like … how in the WORLD could they have called this kid autistic? None of the criteria from the IV would work and the V is a joke. It basically labels everyone something.

  2. djrippert Avatar

    You should read this and then read Sowell’s book …

    One quote from Sowell’s book …

    “Professionals working for the public school system have built-in incentives to label children and put them into special programs, which often get the school system more money from the government. Moreover, these programs need a steady supply of warm bodies, in order to keep going, whether or not they help or hurt the particular child.”

    Make no mistake – there is real autism and it’s a devastating condition. However, real autism has been expanded to something called the “autism spectrum”. At one end are truly autistic people. At the other end are any kids whose development deviates from the average by even a tiny amount.

    And before the outrage brigade starts … more than one of my children has been erroneously diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum and received needless treatments (paid for by parties other than me).

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      Don is quite right. Much is this kind of child emotional care is a money train hopped on by the child health professions, drug companies, and educational professionals, using scare tactics. There is big money involved. Things like multiple brain scans for athletic brain trauma where no one one has a bump on his head. Or the rampant ADD diagnosis just cause the kid is a 8 year old boy. Or dyslexia special needs because a kid doesn’t study, and is not made too.

      Today, in some high priced DC private schools costing $40,000 a year, you’ve got more that a third of the kids on daily medications at school just to get them through their classes.

      Dyslexia and ADD cases now falling off due to a crack down on drugs, and regulators have caught on. Same thing is going on with sex changes. It going sky high through the roof among kids. Some predict that at the rate we are going, 20% of all adolescents girls in many communities soon will be wanting sex change operations. It’s a fad. It’s cool. And there is hysteria too. Often driven by corrupt health care professionals, drug companies, educators, and special interests, including those driven by ideologies. All this is very common like, akin to love canal hoax and the child care molestation crisis in the 1980s. It is also where the opioid crisis started, the pain fad. Witch hunts are with us always. Modern instant communication flames these embers fire and into mobs. Parents are often victims to this hysteria, and understandably so.

      A lot of healthy kids suffer who should be left alone, and a lot on kids needing real treatment get abused, overdosed, and scared for life.

      I have not looked into this regarding autism, but the 271% increase sends up a very big red flag. Perhaps amazing advances in cognitive science and machinery has something to do with this, for good or ill.

  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    Given the militancy of those who say their kids are autistic and the strong demand for services really does strain credulity as to it being a trumped up job-creation conspiracy – around the country – around the world even…

    wow – around the world there is a “professional” class of folks who are creating this so they can make jobs for themselves?

    that’s laughable… but that’s what one expects from the likes Mr. Sowell.. in general. He just spouts off-the-wall stuff and knee-jerk folks line up to support his foolishness.

    but I do urge folks to look at autistic rates – nationally and around the world and then see for themselves if they are willing to attribute those rates to “professionals around the world looking for warm bodies.

    so here’s a chart – there are many – and they don’t all match so the numbers are a little wobbly but the idea that in Norway and Japan and other countries that there is a “professional” class out to make a job for themselves – on a world-wide basis… geeze…

    What I AM a “skeptic” of is why the rates by country – even by State vary so wildly… and further – why are we having this problem in such numbers today when as far as I can tell we have a much lower incidence of it – 20, 30 , 40 years ago?

    1. djrippert Avatar

      You should read Sowell’s book instead of spewing your quarter baked theories. Sowell’s son was diagnosed with a mild form of autism and he did extensive research into the matter. His conclusion was that there was nothing wrong with his son. As a economist with degrees from Harvard (BA), Columbia (MA) and Chicago (PhD) he looked for possible financial motivations behind a massive increase in the diagnosis of autism. He found a cottage industry of well meaning people who have it in their financial best interests to rather be safe than sorry.

      As the father of multiple children mis-diagnosed as being autistic you can count me among the militants. Yes, the “free” 1 to 1 therapy by licensed professionals probably benefitted my diagnosed kids. However, it would have probably helped my undiagnosed kids or any kids for that matter. After a couple of years of expensive therapy my kids were declared “cured”.

      Don’t fool yourself Larry. There are real cases of autism and it’s a devastating mental illness. Then there are normal variances in childhood development being mis-diagnosed as mild autism. Those doing the diagnosis benefit from the diagnosis. I personally think they are well intended but the road to fiscal hell is lined with good intentions.

      Did you know that George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Bill Gates all are suspected of having a mild form of autism known as Asperger’s Syndrome. What a sham it went undiagnosed. They could have become such productive members of society.

      1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
        Reed Fawell 3rd

        My experiences with these matters, which are not insubstantial in numerous ways, as regards ADD and Dyslexia, and to a lesser degree autism, match and confirm Don’s. This is not to underestimate the problems. God knows I do not, living with mine every day. But one must look at these matter with clear eyes, indeed gimlet eyed, or you can be easily fooled and harmed if you do not. In these matters, emotions, myths, repressions, wild speculations, fads and disguises, pain and hidden self-interests run rampant.

        Thomas Sowell is one of the most respected scholars living in the world today. Being clear on that is useful too.

    1. Interesting data.

      China — one in 435
      Hong Kong — one in 27

      Both are Chinese. One is a developing country. The other is one of the highest-income polities in the world. I’d almost think income was a decisive factor. But then you have Taiwan, also ethnically Chinese (and native Formosan) with one in 2,000.

      That makes me want to examine the educational and medical establishments to see how they diagnose and treat the disorder.

  4. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    Wow, that brings up another question: does that same pattern hold within the United States, with the diagnosis more common among Asian families with roots in Hong Kong, South Korea and Japan? And look at China and Taiwan. How could China, Taiwan and Hong Kong vary like that? Where did you find this data, Larry? You certainly would not see that wide variation with other diagnoses with neurological indications, would you? Is there data on dyslexia or other forms of learning disability broken down that way?

    Is there data just from Europe and Asia? Not Africa or South America?

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      I am not surprised.

      Absent a quirk in genetics, Larry’s chart proves my point. For example, look up number of cosmetic plastic surgery operati0ns in Buenos Aires, and compare them with other cities in world, and I suspect you’ll find the same. Is it genetics or culture? Or is it technologies, or fad or insecurity? Or combination thereof.

  5. It is a “spectrum disorder” and there is no global standard for diagnosis, so the rate could be almost anything as Larry’s graphic shows.

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd


      Or the “disease within the spectum” could be most anything some special interest or doctor says it is.

    2. LarrytheG Avatar

      My bad.. I usually provide the link and did not.

  6. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    An AHA! moment as you read to the bottom of that source and realize this list is being used to at least prop up the idea that it’s vaccines which are responsible…..and there are more than a few WAG’s in those numbers……

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      yeah – I did not read to the bottom and there are those who believe it is caused by vaccines but if you just Google ” incidence of Autism by country” – you’ll get a plethora of links and if you do it with Google images, you’ll get charts and from that the sources.

      But as I said before – the data wildly varies and need to be careful about the actual source of the data but the bottom line is that it’s a worldwide phenomenon not just a US one… and there are issues with people agreeing with what it is or is not as well as the differing varieties of it.

      And Beyond it being a worldwide phenomena , in the USA – folks who have kids affected by it – pretty much DEMAND that the public school system take responsibility for educating kids with these issues – as opposed to the schools creating more positions voluntarily to give a job to themselves. Most school systems would gladly turn this over to some other entity and not have to deal with it as it diverts existing limited resources and requires hiring much more specialized and expensive personnel.

  7. The spectrum is wide ranging, but it does not mean those on one end don’t need interventions. In fact, many even “look normal”. I know first hand. Interventions, including therapy help immensely. The data is there which proves it.
    Anyone who thinks teachers want to label and force kids to get services in order to bring more money to their school system is blind. The schools don’t have enough resources for the kids they have. The teachers are exhausted by the needs of the kids. Conversations with special ed and counselors in the schools would confirm that.
    Here’s an article about kids who look “normal.” I have one myself. She hides in plain sight.

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