California - '273% Increase
in Autism - We Don't Know Why'
A new state report released today raises troubling questions about why California's developmental services system is experiencing a large unexpected increase in the numbers of children with autism, announced by State Senate President pro Tem John Burton and Senator Wesley Chesbro, Chair of the Senate Select Committee on Developmental Disabilities and Mental Health.
"In the past 10 years, California has had a 273% increase in the number of children with autism who enter the developmental services system - 1,685 new cases last year alone," Burton said. "What is generally considered a rare condition is increasing faster here than other developmental disabilities. We need to find out why."
"The number of children with autism greatly exceeds the numbers you'd expect from traditional incident rates," Chesbro said. "The findings and conclusions of this report show we need to take action now to figure out where this increase is coming from, what the causes of autism are and what we as a state can do."
The Department of Developmental Services report, "Changes in the Population of Persons with Autism and Pervasive Developmental Disorders in California's Developmental Services System: 1987-1998" was released to the Legislature this morning. While it confirms the increased incidence, the report does not examine factors leading to the increase. The report was required as a result of legislation developed after parents, human services professionals and educators expressed concern that they were seeing a dramatic increase in children with autism.
In addition to special legislative hearings in the issue, Burton and Chesbro called for funding an independent epidemiological study to help identify the causes of autism and the factors leading to California's increase in autism cases. The Senators suggested that the U.C. Davis Medical Investigation of Neurological Disorders Institute, (M.I.N.D.) would be the appropriate organization to do the research.
Autism exacts a tremendous cost on children, on families and the developmental disabilities system," Burton said. "The system is getting seven new kids with autism seven days a week. Is this because families are coming to California for services? A change in diagnostic practices? Something environmental? We need to get to the bottom of this and we need to do it right," Chesbro added.
For copies of the report contact Paul Verke a the California Department of Developmental Services 916 654-1820. The report is also on the Department's website: , or will be there by the end of the day. The contact for the M.I.N.D. Institute is Carole Gan 916 734-9047
EXCERPTS OF THE REPORT by Michael McIntire FEAT Director
If there was ever any doubt about the rise in Autism Incidence, this will forever dispel it. Following is an excerpt from a CA Department of Developmental Services report released today by state Senator John Burton.
While the 273% increase is quite notable in the face of 50% increases for other disabilities, it is notable that data for the 13,000+ children in the the early start program for 0 to 3 year olds was NOT included. The numbers will also show that the rate of increase is accelerating at 3% per year.
If you really want to be scared: for the calendar year 1998, there were 1,685 NEW diagnosis, or 16% of the total population - in ONE YEAR.
Michael McIntire
Table 1 shows the number and percent change in the number of persons with autism and other PDDs counted from all four levels of CDER classification in the 11 years between 1987 and 1998. The population of persons with autism increased from 4.85 to 9.37 percent of the total state wide client population. At the end of 1998 there were 12,780 persons, of all ages, with autism listed on the CDER. Autism as a percent of the total client population nearly doubled.
   Table 1 - Number of Persons with Autism in 1987 and 1998
                                            1987          1998
   Total Client Population                 80,483       136,383
   Persons with Autism (Levels 1,2&4)       3,902        12,780
   Percent of Total Client Population       4.85%         9.37%
Table 2 presents the total number and percent change between 1987 and 1998 for persons with autism, cerebral palsy, epilepsy and mental retardation. To maintain equivalency in the way each diagnostic condition is counted, only CDER classification Levels 1 and 2 for persons with autism are used in this table. Because some individuals have two or more of the four eligible conditions at the same time, all possible combinations of eligible conditions were used and a separate count was obtained for each condition or combination of conditions. For example, if an individual has cerebral palsy, epilepsy and mental retardation, that person would be counted three separate times, once for each separate condition to get the total for each separate condition.
Table 2 shows that the percent occurrence of persons with autism increased dramatically in comparison to the other conditions for the 11 years between 1987 and 1998. The rate of the increase is more than four times as great as the other diagnostic categories.
   Table 2 -
   Percent Increase in Diagnostic Populations from 1987 to 1998
                           1987            1998    Percent Change
   Autism                  3,864          11,995       210.43%
   Cerebral Palsy         19,972          28,529        42.84%
   Epilepsy               22,683          29,645        30.69%
   Mental Retardation     72,987         108,563        48.74%
   Whole Population       80,483         136,383        69.46%
As one example of the increase in the number of persons with autism, between 12/31/97 and 12/31/98, there was a net increase of 1,685 persons with autism into the system. The population of persons with autism increased 16.3 percent in one year, not including persons with other PDD diagnoses. By the end of 1998, there were 785 persons in the system with a diagnosis of one of the (Level 4) PDD diagnoses, i.e., Asperger's, PDD, NOS or Retts disorder.
Table 3 shows the percent change in occurrence of the other DDs in comparison to autism. There was a 273 percent increase in the number of persons with autism between 1987 and 1998 and nearly a 2000 percent increase in the PDD categories. Table 3 also shows that as of December 31, 1998, there were 1,635 individuals coded on the CDER as "autism suspected, not diagnosed."
   Table 3 - Autism and the Other PDDs Compared
                          1987          1998      Percent Change
   Autism                 2,778        10,360         272.93%
    (CDER Levels 1 & 2)
   Other PDD Types           38           785       1,965.79%
    (CDER Level 4)
   Autism Suspected,      1,086         1,635          50.55%
    Not Diagnosed (CDER level 9)