Local News

Number Of Autistic Children In N.C. Continues To Grow

Posted December 12, 2005 4:25 a.m. EST

— The number of children with autism in North Carolina schools is rising dramatically. Four years ago, doctors diagnosed 168 children with the disorder statewide. This year, that number nearly doubled, and no one is sure why.

For many people, understanding children with autism is difficult, but Dillard Elementary School teacher Sallie Whelan speaks their language.

"We work to change the environment for the kids instead of trying to change the kids to fit the environment," Whelan said.

Until about a year ago, the

Centers for Disease Control

said one in 250 kids were being diagnosed with autism. Now that number is one in 166.

As of April 2005, the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction said 303 children with autism were enrolled in kindergarten across the state. That is up from 168 in 2001. The numbers are going up in Wake County as well.

In 2004, Wake County reported there were 581 kids with autism in their schools. That is up nearly 100 students in just two years from 482 in 2002.

In the past five years, the number of children diagnosed with autism coming into North Carolina's public schools doubled. Reasons include the fact that the diagnosis expanded to include a wider range of symptoms and North Carolina is well-known for its autism programs.

Parents and people in general are also more aware of autism due to the publicity surrounding it in the past few years.

"We have more resources in our states than a lot of other states. That's part of the reason many people are relocating here," said David Laxton of the

Autism Society of North Carolina


Laxton said the theories of where autism comes from range from genetics to preservatives in children's vaccines. But regardless of the origin, he believes we need to increase funding for autism programs as the population grows.

"We can't continue to do what we do as more people need the services," he said. "We need to plan for the future and maintain what we currently have here."

For Whelan, the numbers are not as important as the individuals. As long as there are children with autism who need her help, she will be there.

"You have to realize there are small steps and be satisfied with that, small steps, you're not going to see great leaps most often," Whelan said.

Most counties have separate classes for autism students, but others are mainstreamed into traditional classes if they are high-functioning. Laxton said in the past, the legislature has been generous about funding autism programs, but that needs to continue.