Autism's cost


The perplexing disorder of autism continues to take its toll on children, families and society as a whole. Things are likely to get worse.

Autism is a serious subject, not only for families with autistic children but for the entire nation. The numbers are startling — and alarming. Let's begin right here at home: As of last month there were 424 students officially designated as autistic attending Frederick County Public Schools. Add to that number those who are being educated outside the public schools and many more who exhibit some autistic-like symptoms.

According to a report released last year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a 2000-2002 survey of 8-year-olds concluded that "the prevalence of autism had risen to 1 in every 150 American children, and almost 1 in 94 boys." And while we're talking statistics, the Autism Society of America estimates the cost of lifetime care for a single autism sufferer will be $3.5 million to $5 million. On a national scale, the U.S. is facing a $90 billion annual bill to adequately care for this population.

Over the last half century, autism has come more and more into the public and medical consciousness. Described as a complex developmental disability, it is characterized by impaired communication and social interaction. Children with autism often exhibit significant developmental problems with nonverbal communication such as making eye-to eye contact and displaying facial expression. They may be unable to establish friendships with children their own age, and fail to show empathy for other people's feelings, including pain and sorrow. They may also exhibit repetitive behaviors or interests.

Symptoms of the disease generally appear during the first three years of life, sometimes suddenly, and while studies indicate that early diagnosis and treatment can significantly improve the outcome for autistic children, they do not "outgrow" the disease.

As a "spectral" disorder, autism can manifest itself in widely varying degrees of severity, from moderate to extreme. For those profoundly affected, it is a devastating condition that can include failure to speak and other debilitating physical and social manifestations. Many will require a lifetime of special care.

Autism is a serious, widespread, heartbreaking, costly problem. It demands our attention and resources for both moral and practical reasons. Currently, however, autism is receiving fewer research dollars than less-prevalent childhood diseases and far, far fewer than its emotional and fiscal impact on families, communities and society warrants.

We understand and share the enthusiasm for projects such as the long-term U.S. Mars investigation and CERN's Large Hadron Collider. Still, we can't help but wonder what kinds of results the many billions invested in such projects might yield if they instead went to autism research.

We are gazing outward into space and inward into the atom, but we cannot afford to let such noble quests divert our eyes from each other.

Originally published September 26, 2008 (see here).