Mike Russell backed a call by Conservative MSP Murdo Fraser for a deeper understanding of why more children have additional support needs, rising from 28,732 in 2002 to 118,034 last year.
A 57 per cent jump in 2010 can be accounted for by a change in recording methodology, Mr Russell said. But he conceded that this does 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 and make sure that [Mr Fraser] meets with the appropriate minister to discuss how we might take that forward.”