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New report explains OC's dramatic rise in autism diagnoses

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Orange County has the highest number and rate of children with autism in the state but a new report released Tuesday by Chapman University suggests the eight-fold increase over the last 15 years might be related to how psychologists are diagnosing the developmental disability.

The finding are being presented Tuesday during a summit on disabilities at Chapman University.

Currently, about 19 percent of all Orange County children, ages three to 22 years old, in special education, have been diagnosed with autism, a dramatic increase from 2000 when just under 3 percent were labeled autistic, according to the report.


That’s the highest rate in the state, said Donald Cardinal, co-founding director of the university’s Thompson Policy Institute on Disability and Autism.

Statewide, the increase of autistic children in special education went from about 2 percent in 2000 to 12.6 percent last year. 

But, Cardinal said the overall number of children in special education has not risen in California, just the percentage of those children who have been diagnosed with autism and other health-impaired categories, like attention deficit hyper-activity disorder. 

Meanwhile, the number diagnosed with specific learning disabilities substantially dropped. 

Researchers suggest children who once were categorized as having one type of developmental disability are being now being shifted into the autism or ADHD category as a result of better diagnosis.

They're calling it a “diagnostic migration” and believe it explains the alarming increase in autism rate among children in Orange County and in California.

"The dramatic increase in rate of autism in both California and Orange County can be almost completely explained by a decrease in another eligibility (diagnostic) category," the report states.

Despite better diagnosis, a lack of resources

Those who work with children with autism say improved diagnosis has helped better tailor academic resources to help them — but those resources are still inadequate as the population ages out of school. 

“The more that we can understand their differences and their strengths as well as their similarities we can come up with better interventions,” said Amy Jane Griffiths, co-founder of the Institute and a licensed psychologist.

Griffiths said schools have learned to help autistic children manage their disabilities by trying to improve their social skills and academic performance but those services aren’t as intense once autistic children become young adults.

Although people with autism can be diligent workers, finding a job that harnesses that energy can be difficult; unemployment, underemployment and low pay are often the result.

“They get placed into jobs that they have no interest in. They’re not a passionate about it,” Griffiths said. “So, they don’t maintain the job. They have no motivation to. It’s not exciting.”

Amy Hurley-Hanson, 54, an associate professor of at Chapman’s business school, has an 18-year old son who was diagnosed with autism when he was three years old.

She said now that he’s an adult, attending college, getting a job and making new friends is a whole new ball game. She’d like to see programs or guidelines for how to help autistic adults become successful community members.

“There isn’t policy on how much money is going to be spent on helping these kids after they’re out of the school districts and what the focus should be on,” Hurley-Hanson said.

Document: Autism prevalence study