Sunday, March 30, 2014

One in 68

Last week, the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released their newest statistics regarding the identified prevalence of autism spectrum disorders, and the numbers are staggering. According to their current data, one in 68 children has autism. Moreover, nearly five times as many boys have autism as girls do, which means one in 42 boys has been identified as having autism. As an autism mom who constantly does research on autism and as a teacher of thirty years who has witnessed the increase first-hand, I probably was not as surprised as most people were to see how common autism has now become. [To read the CDC report on autism prevalence, please click here.]

While the actual numbers are disconcerting, the rapid rate of increase should indicate something is clearly amiss. Specifically, in 2000, based upon the birth year 1992 (in which I would include Alex since he was born at the very end of 1991), the rate of autism was 1 in 150, as it was also in 2002. In 2004, the prevalence increased to 1 in 125, and in 2006, the rate increased to 1 in 110. Two years later in 2008, the statistics jumped to 1 in 88. Now the current research, based upon 2010 data of children born in 2002 has risen to the current rate of 1 in 68 children. I’m not a math whiz like Alex, but the increase in ten years from 1 in 150 to 1 in 68 should serve as a wake-up call that something is desperately wrong to cause such an epidemic of a lifelong disability.

As I read various articles this week that discussed the increased rates of autism, the seeming lack of concern in the mainstream media bothered me. I suppose some people think that if they don’t have a child with autism, this is not their problem. However, the CDC also shares economic figures that should concern our society. According to their data, the average medical expenditure for a child with autism is 4.1-6.2 times higher than that for typical children. These increased costs will affect insurance rates and will increase Medicaid spending for children who receive disability benefits. To put this economic burden into perspective, the CDC estimated in 2011 that the total societal expense for caring for children with autism would cost over nine billion dollars per year. With rapidly increasing numbers of children diagnosed with autism, this expense will only rise to even greater costs. Consequently, autism will impact everyone, either directly or indirectly.

On Tuesday, the beginning of April will mark yet another Autism Awareness Month, or as some autism groups prefer to designate it, Autism Action Month. With increased numbers of children who have autism, awareness should no longer be a real issue. However, action needs to be taken to help those affected with autism and to figure out what is causing the rate of autism to increase dramatically. Essentially, three areas need to be addressed regarding autism: cause, cure, and community resources.
Despite several years and billions of dollars spent on autism research, a clear cause of autism has not been established. While the medical community insists the increased vaccination schedule has had no impact on increased autism rates, the possibility that vaccines may be a contributing factor has not been ruled out completely. Even though doctors and drug companies assure parents that vaccines are completely safe and necessary, many parents believe a link exists between autism and immunizations. This month, an article entitled “Baby Monkeys Develop Autism Symptoms After Getting Popular Childhood Vaccines” described research done at University of Pittsburgh in which infant monkeys who were given childhood immunizations developed autistic symptoms while their counterparts who were not given vaccines did not. [To read this article, please click here.] Certainly, vaccines are important to public health, but their safety—especially in light of the autism epidemic—must be established. If vaccines are not a cause of autism, the medical community needs to find a definite cause of autism. As two of my close friends are pregnant, I have watched them struggle with making decisions regarding flu shots and whooping cough vaccines during pregnancy and their fears about how those shots could affect their unborn babies. Their doctors tell them these vaccines are important to protect their babies, but they worry if what is supposed to help their children could harm them instead. How can the medical community truly assure parents when they, themselves, have no good idea what really causes autism?

Another issue that must be addressed is curing autism. Even though adults with high functioning autism find this suggestion offensive, the vast majority of children with autism suffers from medical issues, such as digestive problems, has great difficulty communicating, and requires constant supervision to keep them safe, especially since nearly half of them tend to wander away from places of safety. Again, the mainstream medical community has offered very little to help these children and has often been critical of those doctors who recommend more holistic approaches, such as diet and nutritional supplements. As I have mentioned in previous blog entries, we have followed the work of doctors whose children have autism, knowing that they will aggressively pursue ways to help their children yet will not endanger them with risky treatments. More research needs to be done to find ways to treat and cure autism so that these children and their families do not need to suffer.

Finally, community resources need to be available now for those families who have children with autism, especially since no definitive cause or cure has been established. Critical therapies, including speech, occupational, and behavioral therapies, are expensive and often not easy to find. Because of the rapidly increasing numbers of children with autism, many agencies that offer these therapies have long waiting lists for services. Moreover, many families cannot afford the cost of these therapies and find themselves on waiting lists for years to receive state disability services. As children age out of the educational system when they turn 22, they will need adult services, which are even harder to find. For example, we have had Alex on a waiting list for a day program for nearly two years. Fortunately, our job schedules permit one of us to always be home with him, and we can afford financially for me to work part-time, which accommodates Alex’s needs. However, many families must make huge sacrifices to care for their adult children with autism as they wait for community services. Until a definitive cause and cure for autism is found, community resources must expand rapidly to address the autism epidemic and to be available to help these families dealing with autism.

One in 68 children has autism. One in 42 boys are affected. Something must be done to help these children, especially if the statistics continue their trend of increase. At what point will our society not just be aware, not just accept, but act? As someone who places much more faith in God than mankind, I keep praying for rescue for these children and their families, and I keep searching for answers that may help my child and others who are more than statistics—they are God’s children, too.

“Now rescue Your beloved people. Answer and save us by Your power.” Psalm 60:5

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