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Pediatrics. 2006 Apr;117(4):1028-37.

The contribution of diagnostic substitution to the growing administrative prevalence of autism in US special education.

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  • Waisman Center, University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI 53705, USA. shattuck@waisman.wisc.edu

Abstract

OBJECTIVE:

Growing administrative prevalence of autism has stirred public controversy and concern. The extent to which increases in the administrative prevalence of autism have been associated with corresponding decreases in the use of other diagnostic categories is unknown. The main objective of this study was to examine the relationship between the rising administrative prevalence of autism in US special education and changes in the use of other classification categories.

METHODS:

The main outcome measure was the administrative prevalence of autism among children ages 6 to 11 in US special education. Analysis involved estimating multilevel regression models of time-series data on the prevalence of disabilities among children in US special education from 1984 to 2003.

RESULTS:

The average administrative prevalence of autism among children increased from 0.6 to 3.1 per 1000 from 1994 to 2003. By 2003, only 17 states had a special education prevalence of autism that was within the range of recent epidemiological estimates. During the same period, the prevalence of mental retardation and learning disabilities declined by 2.8 and 8.3 per 1000, respectively. Higher autism prevalence was significantly associated with corresponding declines in the prevalence of mental retardation and learning disabilities. The declining prevalence of mental retardation and learning disabilities from 1994 to 2003 represented a significant downward deflection in their preexisting trajectories of prevalence from 1984 to 1993. California was one of a handful of states that did not clearly follow this pattern.

CONCLUSIONS:

Prevalence findings from special education data do not support the claim of an autism epidemic because the administrative prevalence figures for most states are well below epidemiological estimates. The growing administrative prevalence of autism from 1994 to 2003 was associated with corresponding declines in the usage of other diagnostic categories.

Comment in

PMID:
16585296
[PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
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