We 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?
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.
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.
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
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