Autism on the rise in Leon

The only knowledge that most people have about autism comes from Dustin Hoffman’s character in “Rain Man.” However, about 5 percent of Americans are diagnosed with “classic autism.”

The number of children diagnosed with these developmental disorders is on the rise throughout American. Leon County children are no exception.

The number of students in the Leon County school system that has been classified as autistic has almost doubled in the last five years. During the 2000-2001 school year, 49 students in the Leon County school system were classified as autistic; 95 have been classified this year.

Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are life-long neurodevelopment disabilities characterized by a lack of communication and social skills. ASDs include Autism, Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS), Asperger’s, Rett’s and Childhood Disintegrative Disorders.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that in the U.S., during the 2000-2001 school year, more than 15,000 students between the ages 3 and 5 and more than 78,000 between the ages of 6 and 21 were classified as having autism under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

“While it is clear that more children than ever before are being classified as having autism spectrum disorders, it is unclear how much of this increase is due to changes in how we identify and classify ASDs in people,” said Catherine E. Rice, a behavioral scientist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In Florida, in order to be classified under the autism umbrella, a child has to meet the eligibility criteria as stated in the State Board of Education Administrative Rules. Some criteria include evidence of severely delayed or absence of speech and language skills or evidence of impaired or complete lack of emotional or social relationships.

“If children on the spectrum meet the eligibility criteria and have a need for special education, they can be classified as autistic,” said Susan Barnes, a coordinator for Exceptional Student Education with the Leon County Public Schools. “Some of the children on the spectrum may receive ESE services under the ‘Other Health Impaired’ or ‘Language Impaired’ classifications.”

The children included in the Leon County schools statistics only reflect the students who are autistic and receive ESE services.

“Now we (are) classifying a much wider variety of children under the autism label, including high functioning children with autism,” Barnes said.

The Leon County school district believes in the philosophy of inclusion.

“We do not believe that children with autism or on the autism spectrum need to be in classes just with other children on the spectrum,” Barnes said. “We believe we should serve each child base on his or her needs. There is no general rule, as each of these children is unique.”

Scientists continue to research the causes of ASDs and there have been tremendous strides over the past ten years.

Lauree Morgan, a director for the Center for Autism and Related Disabilities, said that early intervention has been effective treatment for young children with ASDs.

“Research indicates that intervention provided before age 3 may have an even greater impact than intervention provided after 5 years of age,” Morgan said.

The cause of ASDs is still unknown, but with an early diagnosis and intervention, children with ASDs will develop to their full potential.

Contact Johnitta T. Richards at