The costs associated with the autism epidemic are often hard to quantify. No dollar amount can be broadly ascribed to the personal, familial and social costs that will be extracted by the generation of disabled kids America has produced since the Reagan Revolution of the early 1980s. No one claims to know for sure how many of them there are, let alone what they cost.
But 30 years worth of data recorded in annual "Special Education Statistical Reports" from the Indiana Department of Education (DoE) offer some hints. And when the State Board of Education approves the 2009-2010 Report on Feb. 2, 2010, it will mark the 32d year in a row that special ed funding has risen in Indiana.
Not once since the state started funding special ed in the 1978-79 school year has it decreased. Thirty-one years ago, the level was $42.5 million. The latest report puts this year's at $462.9 million. Funding for autistic students, which likewise has never decreased, accounts for roughly 16 percent of that total.
By law, school districts across the state are mandated to identify special-needs students and to provide them with a "free and appropriate education," known in the field as FAPE, according to Dawn McGrath, coordinator of special education for the DoE. The schools also must track and report what they find to state and federal governments, which use it to calculate how much funding each district gets for special ed programming.
The schools receive funding for 16 different categories of special education in one of three amounts -- $8,300, $2,250 or $531. Eight categories receive the $8,300-level funding, including Autism Spectrum Disorders. Five categories are funded at the $2,250 level, three at $531.
McGrath said funding is distributed by diagnosis, not in lump sums to school districts. "It's based on the pupil count," she said. "It's the special ed numbers."
As conditions and diseases go, the range of autism spectrum disorders are relatively new. Autism first appeared in the medical literature in the early the early 1940s. Autistic Disorder didn't even become a diagnosis in the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic & Statistical Manual (DSM) until the third edition, the DSM-III, in 1980.
"By law, school districts across the state are mandated to identify special-needs students and to provide them with a "free and appropriate education," known in the field as FAPE."
But its relentlessly rising incidence has driven the equally relentless increase in special ed funding, even in the past two years, when the total number of special education students across all categories dropped for the first time since 1981-82.
Autism became a special ed category in Indiana six years after the DSM-III, when school districts across the state reported 59 students received services for it. That number dropped to 31 the next year and has risen every year since.
When the DSM-IV expanded the range of autism spectrum disorders in 1994 to include Asperger's Disorder and Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified, autism diagnoses in Indiana public schools jumped 80 percent, from 487 to 877, representing the largest one-year increase in 21 years of data.
By 2007-08, 9,236 children received special ed for Autism, representing a 29,693 percent increase over the first count in 1986.
DoE data for special education overall tell a similar tale. In 1976, 81,639 students received special ed services in at least one of eight diagnostic categories. That was 6.94 percent of the 1.12 million public school students statewide at the time.
Thirty-one years later, in 2007, the total enrollment in public schools had declined to 1.05 million. But more than one in six -- 17.3 percent -- received special ed.
In 1976, four categories -- Communication Disorder, Learning Disability, Mental Disability, Emotional Disability -- comprised 97 percent of special education diagnoses.
In 2007-08, those same four, along with Autism and Other Health Impaired, accounted for 93 percent. Other Health Impaired includes a variety of conditions, among them attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), asthma, lead poisoning, hemophilia and diabetes.
The total number of special ed students has likewise risen every year since that one aberration in 1981-82. But the rate of growth has slowed in recent years and actually dropped the past two.
"By 2007-08, 9,236 children received special ed for Autism, representing a 29,673 percent increase over the first count in 1986."
Of the five major diagnoses, Learning Disability and Mental Disability saw declines between the 2005 and 2007 school years of 3.7 percent and 7.0 percent, respectively. Communication Disorder and Emotional Disability saw increases of 1 percent or less.
Autism and Other Health Impaired, however, saw 27 and 20 percent hikes over that same time.
Learning Disability remains by far the largest population of special ed students, with 60,657 students. Communication Disordered is second, with 50,747.
Other Health Impaired was fourth, with 11,232. Autism was fifth, with 9,236.
Overall funding for special education has paralleled the rise in incidence. Six of the 16 years between 1978 and 1994 recorded double digit increases, from 10.43 in 1982 to 19.98 in 1979.
Special ed funding topped $100 million in 1988, when it reached $112.43 million.
A new funding formula was introduced in 1995, which resulted in a 20.3 percent increase that year, launching the total over $200 million for the first time.
The rate of growth between 1999 and 2007 has shown annual declines, from 9 percent to 1.83.
By category, providing services to Learning Disabled is the costliest, with $136.37 million.
While Autism is a distant fifth in overall enrollment, because of its $8,300 reimbursement per pupil, it ranks second in overall funding. Indiana spent $72.33 million in 2007-08 to provide free and appropriate educational opportunities to students on the autism spectrum.
Steven Higgs can be reached at .