Autism rates soared by nearly 30 percent between 2008 and 2010, according to an April study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About one in 68 eight-year-olds was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder in 2010—a rate that has more than doubled since the year 2000, when 1 in 150 children were identified.
Boys were almost five times more likely to be identified with autism spectrum disorder, and white children were more likely to be diagnosed than were black or Hispanic children, according to the study. The rates are based on information collected in 2010 from health and special education records of children in 11 states.
The CDC did not cite a reason for the increase. But a major factor is increased awareness and diagnosis, says Hanna Rue, executive director of the National Autism Center, a nonprofit that provides information and promotes best practices for children with autism spectrum disorders. These disorders are often characterized by persistent deficits in communication and social interaction.
Parents, teachers and medical providers have a better understanding of the symptoms of autism, while researchers are examining genetic markers and environmental factors, such as pollution, that may cause the disorder, Rue says.
The increase in diagnoses means more services are needed in schools despite budget cuts to special education programs nationwide. “Our kids are in school by age four, and educators spend a lot of time with them,” Rue says. “Despite everything else educators are supposed to do in terms of lesson planning and teaching, they can recognize some of the communication and social deficits that signify autism, and then bring it up tactfully with parents.”
Districts should invest in practices that research has shown to be effective in helping students with autism develop stronger communication and behavioral skills, Rue says. In 2009, a National Autism Center analysis of 775 studies identified 11 effective classroom methods that reduce problem behaviors and improve developmentally appropriate skills, many of which are inexpensive to implement.
One such intervention involves teaching students without disabilities to interact and play with children on the autism spectrum. This helps students learn proper social and behavioral abilities.Another method is the “token economy system,” in which students who behave appropriately or complete tasks are rewarded with tokens they can trade for prizes. Schools also should provide speech language, occupational and physical therapy, Rue says.
Districts also can have board-certified behavior analysts conduct detailed assessments of students with challenging behaviors. The analysts can work with the special education teachers to develop interventions for students, such as a special social skills curriculum that addresses the student’s communications challenges.
It’s also important for educators to help students prepare for life after high school, Rue says. Adults with autism often face challenges finding jobs or opportunities to be active in the community. Administrators should foster relationships with community organizations where these students can work or volunteer after graduation, Rue says.