Number of schoolchildren classified as being autistic soars by 56% in five years
'We don't know for sure whether autism has increased or if we have just got better at diagnosing the condition,' says charity spokeswoman
16:37 GMT, 22 March 2012
The number of schoolchildren who are classified as being autistic has soared by 56 per cent in the last five years.
There are now 61,570 children in state-funded schools who are recorded as having some kind of autistic spectrum disorder. This is up from 39,465 children five years ago.
The Government defines autism as 'a lifelong condition that affects how a person communicates with, and relates to, other people, and how a person makes sense of the world around them.'
Struggle: Children with autism can find it difficult to interact with the world around them and need extra support at school (posed picture)
The term is used to cover a variety of autistic conditions including Asperger's syndrome.
Data from the Department of Education shows that in 2006 autistic children made up just one in every 200 pupils. The latest figures put that ratio at one in every 125 children.
Autism can cause learning problems for children. Around 20 per cent of autistic pupils have been suspended from school more than once and around half say they have been subject to bullying.
The U.S has seen a similar rise in the number of children with autism. Its Government estimates the cost of schooling a child with the condition is treble the figure for a child that does not need any extra assistance.
Some experts fear the sharp rise in autism may be more down to parents trying to seek an advantage for their child rather than a genuine ailment.
Sociology professor Frank Furedi, who wrote Wasted: Why Education Isn't Educating, said: 'There has been a proliferation for dispensation on the grounds of autism.
'It is unlikely to be a genuine unprecedented increase in autism, rather an institutional use of this condition to allow people to get easier access to resources.
'This activity ends up trivialising what is a very serious condition for some children.'
Statistics from schools in England shows that in the same five year period that has seen autism rise, there has also been an increase on 15 per cent in the numbers of children registered as having behavioural, emotional or social difficulties to a total of 158,015.
It means that in total there are now 701,000 children, almost one in ten schoolchildren, who are classified as having some kind of special needs.
Nick Seaton, a spokesman for the Campaign for Real Education, said: 'Obviously children with autism need special treatment.
'But the rapid increase does suggest that perhaps the figures should be looked at again.
'Children should not be classified as having special needs too easily. The rise should be examined closely because it has a knock-on effect for teachers, schools and the pupils themselves.'
Caroline Hattersley, Head of Information, Advice and Advocacy at the National Autistic Society said: 'We don't know for sure whether autism has increased or if we have just got better at diagnosing the condition.
'However, we do know that with accurate diagnosis we can ensure the right support is put into place to enable children with autism to reach their full potential.
'As around one per cent of school children have a diagnosis of an autism spectrum disorder, all teachers and school staff should expect to come into contact with children with autism at some point during their careers.
'Therefore it is essential that they are provided with quality training and strategies to effectively support children with autism in the classroom.'
A Department of Education spokesman said: 'Schools receive funding to meet their duty to support any child with special educational needs, including autism. In addition, through the Autism Education Trust, we are funding autism training for teachers.
'We're proposing the biggest programme of reforms in 30 years to help children and young people with special educational need or disabilities, including those with autism.
'We recently announced 20 pathfinder areas that will be testing out some of the main proposals from the Special Educational needs and disability Green Paper.
'This includes trialling a new, single education, health and care plan that can cover children and young people aged birth to 25.'