For the past several years, news from the nation's special education program has been nearly as bleak as the headlines out of Baghdad: A litany of rising casualty figures, increased hardship, soaring financial costs and seemingly no end in sight.
But now it looks like Americans have genuine reason to celebrate: For the first time since records were kept, our youngest kids are showing up at school with fewer learning disabilities than their older brothers and sisters. And the rate of speech or language impairment is falling fastest of all.
In 1990, Congress passed the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA), to help schools provide better services and early intervention for children and youth with disabilities. Since then, data has been collected on the number and types of disabilities in US schools, broken down by age groups.
By looking at the youngest children (3-5 year olds) each year, we are offered a glimpse into what the future might look like, if this welcomed rate of decrease in childhood disabilities continues.
In 2003, the rate of enrollment among 3-5 year olds in the US IDEA program was 587 per 10,000 kids, continuing a rising trend each year for over a decade. In 2004, the rate went up again, to 594/10,000 children.
But then, in December, 2005 (last year's data will be out in June) the rate fell, for the first time ever, to 580/10,000: a decline of 2.4%.
Even more extraordinary was the tumbling rate of 3-5 year olds entering school with speech or language impairments, which make up nearly half of ALL disabilities in the IDEA program.
In 2003 the rate was 286/10,000. In 2004 it fell to 282/10,000 and in 2005 it was 272/10,000 - a nearly 5% decline in just two years.
In some states, the drops have been, well, jaw-dropping.
In Maine, the Special Ed rate among 3-5 year olds fell from 1,178/10,000 to 1,080/10,000 - down 3.3% in a single year.
In New Jersey, services required for speech/language impairment among 3-5 year olds fell by 8.1% between 2003 and 2005.
In Minnesota, state compiled figures show that the number of S/L impairments among 0-2 year olds plummeted 25% between 2003 and 2005.
Why is this happening now, and what does it all mean?
A few caveats: These figures reflect kids largely enrolled in public schools, and do not indicate actual incidence rates in the population. They are useful, however, for looking at trends. And while it's a bit too early to declare a "trend" here, it sure is interesting.
Could it be that more parents are sending their disabled kids to private schools, or else home schooling them? Perhaps, but that is not likely to explain the entire drop. Are American pathologists getting SLOPPIER at diagnosing disabilities? I don't think so.
Then there is the obvious question of funding, and new IDEA criteria adopted in 2004 (though the Federal regulations did not take effect until October, 2006). Maybe budget cuts and stingy case workers really are responsible for ALL of the decrease. But if that is the case, then why are we still spending more money each year on federal grants to states for special education (about $10 billion in 2004 vs $11 billion in 2006)?
Or, maybe, this has something to do with the gradual reduction in the mercury content of childhood vaccines, which began around 2000?
Maybe it does. Maybe.
The kids I mentioned were all born from 2000-2002, when the mercury-containing preservative thimerosal began to be removed from childhood vaccines and immune-globulin given to pregnant women. Mercury containing vaccines and immune-globulin remained on American medical shelves in undetermined quantities until at least 2003. Meanwhile, more infants and pregnant women began getting mercury-laced flu shots.
Still, these kids are among the first cohorts to enter school bearing less of a vaccine mercury burden, on average, than their older siblings. Is that why they seem healthier?
A lot has been written about thimerosal and autism, (Including my book "Evidence of Harm") but much less so about mercury's possible role in other disorders like speech delay, ADD, ADHD and tics.
A four-year, CDC study published in the journal Pediatrics in 2003 revealed that thimerosal exposure did indeed have a statistically significant association with an increased risk of language delay in one of the HMO's studied. Earlier, unpublished analyses showed highly elevated risks for speech delay (nearly three times the risk) as well as ADD, ADHD, and tics.
So if thimerosal exposure can impair language (and it says so right on the product's warning label), then reducing the exposure might yield a subsequent drop in the rate of speech/language impairments.
Which brings us to autism. Are the rates going down among 3-5 year olds? Sadly, they are not, though the rate of increase is, thankfully, leveling off.
One explanation is that this age group is still too young to be fully diagnosed with autism (their raw numbers are still much lower than 6-9 year olds). Even so, the age of diagnosis is falling fast, which might help explain the rising numbers in the youngest kids.
Curiously, many children with autism are diagnosed with speech delay well before they get the autism label. Since speech/language impairments fell by 5%, will we see a subsequent drop in total autism cases when this cohort gets older? I have no idea, but it sure would be nice.
Autism among 3-5 year olds was still rising back in 2005. But it was growing much faster in some parts of the country than others. Maine's rate was 77 per 10,000, Minnesota was at 60, Oregon 57, and California had 51 per 10,000.
But the national autism rate within IDEA is only 25 per 10,000 among 3-5 year olds, far below the estimated rate of 60 per 10,000. Ohio has only 9 cases per 10,000, Puerto Rico just 7, and Oklahoma just 4 (about 1/20th the rate of Maine).
Clearly, we need to let the diagnosing and reporting catch up before drawing any solid conclusions about autism,
I have always said that large population studies are useful in looking for medical trends. But they are not as helpful when trying to disprove causation (in this case, between mercury and autism). You also need to look at the biology - in other words, the kids themselves.
Why are thousands of kids entering the school system now with seemingly fewer disabilities than their older siblings? It's a good question.
One way to find an answer is to look inside the kids themselves for clues of environmental insults heaped upon them by our modern world. Were the youngest kids LESS "insulted" than the others? If so, it will certainly show up in their biochemistry. Maybe it's time to have a look.
Am I predicting that autism rates will begin dropping now? Absolutely not. I am merely reporting that we had fewer disabled students in the public schools in 2005 than in years past.
No matter what the cause of this drop, and no matter what the consequences, surely all reasonable people can agree that the falling IDEA numbers are a very good thing.
NOTE: Much of this data can be found at www.ideadata.org.
Figures on special ed grants is at http://www.ed.gov/about/overview/fed/10facts/edlite-chart.html
Special thanks to Laura Kasemodel, of Minnesota, for her math-wiz help.