Israel Sees 12 Fold Increase in Autistic Children in Special Ed Since 2000

'Israel’s increase is exceptional': In 2000 there were 894 autistic children in special education, in 2018 the number has grown to 11,145

File photo: A teacher and student at The Israel Society for Autistic Children, Ashdod, September 1, 2015.
Ilan Assayag

The number of autistic children in special education has grown more than 12-fold in less than two decades, from 894 in 2000 to 11,145 in 2018, a new report said.

The number of children with severe behavioral problems increased more than seven-fold during this period, from 2,347 to 17,483.

Overall, the number of children in special education has jumped 127 percent since 2005, while the total number of schoolchildren climbed only 33 percent, the study said. During this same period, the Education Ministry’s budget for special education rose 138 percent, while its budget for ordinary education climbed 71 percent.

Nachum Blass, who wrote the study for the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies, said the rise in special education students is a global phenomenon. Nevertheless, Israel’s increase is exceptional, he said, which suggests that “we need to examine the Education Ministry’s definitions. It’s not reasonable that there should be such a large gap between the increase in special-needs students and that of other students.”

The proportion of special-needs children who were enrolled in regular classes, or mainstreamed, changed little over the last two decades, fluctuating between 38 and 44 percent.

Attorney Avivit Barkay Aharonof of Bizchut, the Israel Human Rights Center for People with Disabilities, said the increase in the number of special-education students stems partly from the structure of the education system. The Education Ministry provides little support for students with disabilities defined as minor, with the result that their functioning sometimes deteriorates. In other cases, parents actually ask for a worse diagnosis so their children will be entitled to support.

The ministry “is aware of this and has heard it explicitly from parents,” but hasn’t done anything about it, she charged.

Dr. Orit Stoller, a pediatric neurologist with ALUT, the Israeli Society for Children and Adults with Autism, said the rise in autism is also related to an expanded definition of the syndrome.

“In the 1980s, the term referred only to children with very low cognitive function,” she said. But in 1994, the American Psychiatric Association updated the term to cover a wide range of functionality, even including some children “who speak and communicate.”

Additionally, she said, awareness of disability grew and diagnostic tools were improved, so autism can now be discovered at a younger age.

But the increase isn’t just a function of definitional and diagnostic changes, Stoller added. The fact that women are giving birth at older ages raises the risk of children on the autism spectrum. So does the fact that more premature babies survive these days, since autism is more common in preemies.

Finally, there are environmental factors. While these haven’t been fully investigated, Stoller said, they apparently do increase the incidence of autism.

Nevertheless, she stressed that early diagnosis and treatment can greatly improve a child’s functioning.

This past summer, the Knesset approved a reform of the special education system that is meant to significantly increase the number of special-needs children who are mainstreamed. It will be implemented in the north in the 2019-20 school year and in the rest of the country the following year.

As part of this reform, responsibility for the panels that evaluate children to see if they should be mainstreamed or put in special education will be transferred from municipalities to the Education Ministry. But other than in exceptional cases, parents will now make the final decision.

The ministry has budgeted 240 million shekels ($64 million) to help regular schools build therapy rooms and provide more hours of therapy and individual instruction to special-needs children. But many experts harshly criticized the reform. They charged that its real goal is to reduce the costs of special education, noting that mainstreamed children will still receive significantly less help than children in special education schools.

The ministry denied this, however, saying the significant budget increase is intended precisely to provide additional help for mainstreamed children.