"The number of young children who have this previously very rare diagnosis is reaching epidemic proportions and it is being ignored by the medical establishment." - Bill Welsh, chairman of Action Against Autism
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A MASSIVE surge in the number of autistic schoolchildren in Scotland has been exposed after figures showed an increase of more than 600 per cent in secondary pupils with the condition in the past six years.
Official statistics show 825 pupils were diagnosed with autistic spectrum disorder in state secondaries in 2005, compared with 114 in 1999 - an increase of 623 per cent. Over the same period, the number of autistic youngsters in primary schools more than quadrupled, from 415 to 1,736.
The increases emerged in a written parliamentary answer to be made public today.
Campaigners last night said the figures were further proof that an urgent investigation was needed into the rise in the condition and its potential link with the triple mumps, measles and rubella (MMR) vaccine.
Although no link has ever been clinically proven, campaigners say parents should have the choice of giving their children single vaccinations instead.
Bill Welsh, the chairman of Action Against Autism, said: "Nobody has offered a plausible explanation as to why this has happened.
"This is not a Scottish problem; it is a developed world problem, because the same thing is happening in America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. One common factor affecting children throughout the developed world is the vaccination issue.
"The number of young children who have this previously very rare diagnosis is reaching epidemic proportions and it is being ignored by the medical establishment.
"This is a tragedy for every child concerned and yet our politicians concentrate on soft areas like obesity and ignore the difficult questions, like why we have so many children with neurological problems."
Mr Welsh said the situation amounted to an apparent "public health crime". He added: "We need truly independent, clinical research into why these children withdraw into the world of autism."
The figures break down autism cases by local authority and show wide variations across the country.
Aberdeenshire, for instance, recorded a 533 per cent increase among primary pupils over the six-year period, while in the Borders the rise was a relatively small 137 per cent.
Christine Grahame, the SNP MSP whose written question led to the publication of the figures, accused ministers of negligence by failing to take action to address the problem. She said: "I am concerned that ministers must have taken their eye off the ball, as these figures have risen year on year.
"Autism-specific inspections, for example, have been negligible, with no inspections carried out in mainstream schools at all last year.
"Although there has been some limited specialist support in education, there is no evidence that this has been matched amongst the key, allied, supporting health professionals.
"The growing numbers are bound to add to the pressure on front-line teaching staff, and those pupils with autism deserve to have the right level of support in place, not just from educational staff but also from supporting health professionals."
A spokeswoman for the Scottish Executive said the rise could partly be explained by increased awareness of the condition.
She also said the introduction of the Additional Support for Learning Act would improve education provision for children with special needs.
"We give local authorities 25 million a year for inclusion and we've also funded more classroom assistance to give teachers extra support," she said.