The number of schoolchildren identified as having autism has increased more than 500 percent over the past decade, according to a report released by the U.S. Government Accountability Office last week.
Nearly 120,000 children with autism were served under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the main federal special education law, during the 2001-02 school year, up from about 20,000 students served in the 1992-93 year, the report says.
The dramatic increase could be due to better diagnoses, a wider range of behavioral syndromes being classified as autism, or a higher incidence of autism in the population, according to the GAO report, which compiled information from several sources. The GAO is the auditing arm of Congress.
The report says that educating children with autism costs an average of $18,000 a year, based on 1999-2000 school year data, the most recent available. That estimate was nearly three times the average per-pupil spending on those not receiving any special education services and among the highest per-pupil average cost for students in special education. Only students with multiple disabilities had a higher average per-pupil expense, at about $20,000 for each student that year.
Successful autism treatments usually involve early diagnosis and intervention, the report notes. The information came from a study of different therapies for students with autism, collected by the National Research Council.
At a minimum, successful treatment for preschool children with autism should include 25 hours a week of “intensive instructional programming,” one-on-one and small-group instruction, and inclusion of a family component, the report says. Older students should get individualized education plans with goals that can be observed, measured, and accomplished in a year.
The GAO analysis was conducted at the request of U.S. Reps. Dan Burton, R-Ind., and Diane Watson, D-Calif..
A version of this article appeared in the February 23, 2005 edition of Education Week as GAO: Big Jump in Children With Autism Seen