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Autism on the Rise: Are We Prepared?

Empty preschool classroomWe know very little about the effects of environmental toxicity on the developing brain, but toxicity is a suspected cause, or maybe one of several causes, of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Less than 50 of the 3,000 chemicals common in our everyday lives have been sufficiently tested for safety.  The recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that 1 in 88 children are diagnosed with autism makes all research related to this disorder, including the effects of toxicity, seem urgent. A problem this prevalent, and one that requires long-term medical and social services for those with ASD, makes this an issue affecting all of us.

Over an autistic person’s lifetime, it is estimated the cost for services will total more than 3 million dollars. Are we ready and able to provide adequate services and education to the growing number of people diagnosed with autism?

The Cost

Those of us who do not have a family member with autism still may empathize with the emotional price of accepting the diagnosis and adjusting family life to accommodate it. It is also important for us to understand the financial cost involved in raising a child with autism. A family’s expenses may include child care, special education, home and community services, day or residential programs, placement, and supported employment. Add to that physician services, medications, therapies, periods of hospitalization, emergency care, special equipment, and home health care.

Applied-behavior therapy, currently a treatment of choice for children with autism, requires  up to 40 hours of one-on-one time with a qualified therapist each week. Many families cannot afford this expense, leaving the child’s education to the local school system, which may or may not have adequate resources to educate autistic children.

Choices to Make

From 2007 to 2011, 30 states enacted legislation requiring insurance coverage for those with autism, providing financial relief for many families. Every ointment has its fly though, and some insurers point out that this has made the already high cost of insurance even higher.

Gil Eyal, a Columbia University sociologist and autism researcher, points out that a public debate is necessary to determine “how much we are willing to invest in making individuals who are disabled . . . have a meaningful level of membership in society.” It will be an interesting debate since many states during the past few years have reduced (some would say slashed) the benefits available for people with mental health disabilities.

The issue of caring for increasing numbers of people with autism will either be faced by choice or, as is often the case, by necessity. People with autism have the same life expectancy as almost everyone else. Long-term care will be needed for some adults who lose support when their parents, or other caregivers, pass away. Housing, medical and dental care, and daily structure are necessary for them to maintain a good quality of life.

What Is Required

Since an ounce of prevention is still worth a pound of cure, there are several steps experts, and people with common sense, recommend.

  • We need to address the genetic and environmental connections to autism with continued research.
  • It may be most effective to look at autism as a neurobiological or whole-body condition. Autism symptoms could well be part of a systemic disturbance that includes symptoms of an ASD.
  • We must use chemicals responsibly and become aware of how they each affect  human development and long-term health.
  • Our environment needs to be as free of toxins as possible. The increased incidence of several diseases has a suspected link to poisons in our air, food, and water. Some of us are likely more sensitive to toxins than others, but an obvious question is why we think any poison in the environment is acceptable.
  • Early screening and treatment of an ASD is best for the individual diagnosed and reduces  treatment costs in the long run.
  • Schools need to be adequately equipped to address the special needs of these children in the classroom.

As with any illness involving the mind, it is time to look at people with ASD as individuals, with their own set of strengths and skills. For example, research reveals that those with autism are better at processing information than the general population. The more challenging the situation, the more they shine.

Silver Lining?

It is unfortunate when, in situations involving health care, we find ourselves examining the bottom line and putting a price tag on the quality of anyone’s life, but that is the reality we are faced with. The CDC is calling for more resources to go into understanding the causes of ASD and supporting families affected. If any good can come from the rise in ASD diagnoses, it will be the wake-up call to really begin focusing on the future of our society as a whole and putting our priorities in line with the health and well-being of children—those here already and those yet to be born.


  1. Herbert, M. R. (2006). Time to get a grip. Autism Advocate. Fifth edition. Available at: http://mindd.org/s/uploads/pdf/Herbert%20Time_to_get_a_grip-aut-envhealth%20ASA06.pdf
  2. National Conference of State Legislatures. (January 2012). Insurance coverage for autism. Available at: http://www.ncsl.org/issues-research/health/autism-and-insurance-coverage-state-laws.aspx
  3. Science Daily. (March 22, 2012). People with autism posses greater ability to process information, study suggests. Available at: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/03/120322100313.htm
  4. Fairbanks, A. F. (2009, April 18). Tug of war over costs to educate the autistic. New York Times. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/19/education/19autism.html

Related articles:
The Difference 1 Makes: Reflections on the CDC Autism Rates
The Gravity of Autism, Part 1

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  • Leave a Comment
  • Pamela Smith

    April 12th, 2012 at 11:30 AM

    I honestly don’t think that we are prepared for the cost of this because there are still far too many people, educators included, who look at autism as some kind of behavioral problem that with the right discipline can be fixed. As the parent of an autistic child though I can tell you that this is not true. There is something more to this than poor behavior, and my son, even with the best therapy, while he has made strides toward improvement, he is in no way ready to be mainstreamed into a real classroon setting, and I know that in all likelihood he never will be. I accept that and do the best that I can for him with the respurces that we have been given and provided with, but I can’t imagine the parent without help trying to do this alone.

  • cason

    April 12th, 2012 at 3:25 PM

    Not passing the buck here, but sometimes I think that instead of my money going into research for something that does not intimately affect me, maybe this should be more the role of government and the families who will be the ones who take the most advantage from the outcomes. I know that this sounds stingy, I hear it even as I type it, but I am kind of tired of keeping up society when I do all that I can to pay my own bills and raise my own kids. I have no way of knowing what the future holds, and who knows? Maybe one day this is something that I will be faced with in my own family. But I think that the best approach is for everyone to give toward a cause as they see fit and hope that those who need the help are planning to be willing to pitch in when the help is needed from them on the financial end.

  • Justin

    April 13th, 2012 at 4:18 AM

    Wow, cason, man, I sure do hope that nothing like this does happen to you and your family, but I would have thought that more readers on this site would be a little more supportive of their fellow man and try to sympathize a little more with the situations that they are dealing with. You’re kind of cold, with all of that take care of your own stuff. I suppose if you had potholes in your road then you and your neighbors go out and fix them instead of the DOT. I though am a little more concerned with what others could be facing, with the realization that we all have to be in this together in order to make society the ccohesive place that I thought we would all aspire to have.

  • STefan

    April 13th, 2012 at 4:22 PM

    very hard to be prepared for something of which there is still so very little understanding
    i find it kind of shocking the ways that the numbers of autistic cases are always on the rise yet there has been very little progress made over what causes this and the most effective treatments
    families are left to wonder what if? or what could i have done to prevent this?
    so are we prepared? no. we don’t even know yet where to start

  • Melanie J

    April 14th, 2012 at 11:27 AM

    Why do we always talk about autistic children like they are a burden to us?

    My so has autism, and granted it is fairly mild compared to some other families cases that I have seen, but he is the sweetest child on earth, and I would never wish to trade him for anything.

    So my dreams for him may be a little different now than what I had thought when I was pregnant or when he was a new infant. But we just modified those a little, and don’t ever expect for him to not be able to succeed in his own way.

  • preston

    April 15th, 2012 at 4:45 AM

    I have to admit that I have never had any experience with autistic children other than stories I have read here and in other news sources. It seems that there is a good bit of evidence that points to environment having a huge impact over the development of this disorder. True or false? Because I have read some places that highly suggests this and then in others that it was something that the child is born with.

  • Doug Cull

    April 16th, 2012 at 5:14 AM

    The very best way to be prepared for this is to continue to pour more money into research and education. It is obviously something that is not going to go away, so we can’t bury our heads in the sand.

  • Tom

    September 22nd, 2012 at 12:19 AM

    What a shame the parent have so many positive supports in place and these caregivers chose to ignore these and abuse the patient. Just shocking stuff. Shows how abusive caregivers can’t undermine a parent’s effort in helping their autistic child.

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