SCIENTISTS and doctors should examine why the number of children with educational difficulties such as autism has risen four-fold in ten years, the Education Secretary has said.
• Mike Russell has expressed concern at four-fold rise in rise in children diagnosed with educational difficulties
• Changes in recording methodology and better diagnoses may not fully account for such a sharp rise, says Murdo Fraser
Mike Russell backed a call by Conservative MSP Murdo Fraser for a deeper understanding of why more children are now classed as having additional support needs, rising from 28,732 in 2002 to 118,034 last year.
The figures were first revealed by The Scotsman last week following a parliamentary question submitted by Mr Fraser.
Yesterday Mr Russell said that a 57 per cent jump in children with additional support needs in the classroom in 2010 could be accounted for by a change in recording methodology.
But he conceded that this did not explain why cases almost doubled in number in the previous decade.
Mr Fraser, Holyrood’s adviser to the Autism Treatment Trust, said: “Even before 2010 there was a very substantial rise, year on year, of the number of pupils with additional support needs.
“While some of this can be put down to better recognition and diagnoses, would the minister agree that we really need some proper scientific medical research as to whether there are underlying societal, medical or environmental factors, including looking at the increase in the number of youngsters identified as being on the autistic spectrum?”
Mr Russell said: “It is important to separate out the reason for the change in statistics under statistical reporting, and the issue that the member refers to, which is worthy of further discussion.
“It is obvious that in some areas there was, and may still be, an increasing trend.
“The problem with the reporting of this issue is that the two issues became conflated.
“If we can separate those out, then I am very willing to ensure that we take this issue further.”
Bill Welsh, president of the Edinburgh-based Autism Treatment Trust, welcomed the minister’s comments.
“It is perhaps a first acknowledgement by the Scottish government that there is a serious health problem affecting children and impacting on the education services,” he said.
“The increase in autism over many years requires thorough independent examination if we are to establish the causes.”